May 1, 2013

French Diplomat Warns of Western Failure in Afghanistan


A French diplomat has let slip what has been obvious to many Americans for quite some time: the Western nation building project in Afghanistan is in dire shape:

The positive spin from the Americans has been running especially hard the last few weeks, as Congressional committees in Washington focus on spending bills and the Obama administration, trying to secure money for a few more years here, talks up the country’s progress. The same is going on at the European Union, where the tone has been sterner than in the past, but still glosses predictions of Afghanistan’s future with upbeat words like “promise” and “potential.”

Despite that, one of those rare truth-telling moments came at a farewell cocktail party last week hosted by the departing French ambassador to Kabul: Bernard Bajolet, who is leaving to head France’s Direction Génerale de la Sécurité Extérieure, its foreign intelligence service....

That the Afghan project is on thin ice and that, collectively, the West was responsible for a chunk of what went wrong, though much of the rest the Afghans were responsible for. That the West had done a good job of fighting terrorism, but that most of that was done on Pakistani soil, not on the Afghan side of the border. And that without fundamental changes in how Afghanistan did business, the Afghan government, and by extension the West’s investment in it, would come to little.

His tone was neither shrill nor reproachful. It was matter-of-fact.

Look, this is why the bags-of-cash-to-Karzai story was neither surprising nor all that lamentable: what else could we do? Sure, it would have been nice if everyone in the U.S. government was on the same page about how to "influence" Afghanistan's government, but when is the U.S. government (let alone a consortium of international players, all with their own interests) ever on the same page?

(AP Photo)

March 29, 2013

Report Places Iraq and Afghan War Costs at Between $4 and $6 Trillion


A new report from Havard's Linda Bilmes estimates the total cost of both wars at between $4 and $6 trillion. Here's how Bilmes frames the accounting:

This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid. Since 2001, the US has expanded the quality, quantity, availability and eligibility of benefits for military personnel and veterans. This has led to unprecedented growth in the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense budgets. These benefits will increase further over the next 40 years. Additional funds are committed to replacing large quantities of basic equipment used in the wars and to support ongoing diplomatic presence and military assistance in the Iraq and Afghanistan region. The large sums borrowed to finance operations in Iraq and Afghanistan will also impose substantial long-term debt servicing costs.

Bilmes notes that the U.S. has already borrowed $2 trillion to pay for both wars, making it a significant component of the $9 trillion in debt the U.S. has larded onto its balance sheet since 2001. Of this, an estimated $87 billion was wasted in Iraq reconstruction projects and $61 billion was siphoned off in boondoggle Afghan projects.

"Throughout the past decade," Bilmes writes, "the United States has underestimated the length, difficulty, cost and economic consequences of these wars, and has failed to plan how to pay for them."

(AP Photo)

March 26, 2013

See Every Drone Strike in Pakistan on This Interactive Map


An interactive graphic from Pitch Interactive maps out all the known drone strikes that the U.S. has launched in Pakistan, including the estimated civilian death toll. It uses data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the New America Foundation as its source. (Graphic Detail has a nice backgrounder on how the project came together.)

According to the Bureau, there have been 366 U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan responsible for the deaths of between 2,537-3,581 people. Of those, an estimated 411-884 were civilians and 168-197 were children.

These figures are not without their critics but they are the closest thing we have to a rough approximation of U.S. drone activity.

(Image: Pitch Interactive)

March 4, 2013

"Insider" Attacks in Afghanistan Doubled in 2012


Almost double the number of NATO troops were attacked by their Afghan "allies" in 2012 than in 2011, according to the Washington Times. There were 20 "insider" attacks in 2011 and 47 registered by NATO in 2012. The attacks killed 61 NATO soldiers (most of whom were Americans).

One unnamed Army officer quoted by the Times called these insider attacks the "most effective innovation in tactics employed by the Taliban over the course of the entire war."

One reason such attacks proved so effective was because NATO rapidly enlarged the size of the Afghan security force in the hopes of handing over security responsibilities to local troops after 2014. This mass recruitment resulted in less rigorous vetting, allowing Taliban agents to infiltrate the service or pay-off vulnerable recruits.

(AP Photo)

February 19, 2013

The Silent Weapon in the War Against the Taliban: Viagra


Counterinsurgency, we're frequently told, is a battle for "hearts and minds." In Afghanistan, British and American forces have evidently concluded that one way to win a man's heart is through his pants.

Writing in Newsweek, Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai detail how one British Provincial Reconstruction Team in Helmand embarked on a campaign to win over local mullahs by plying them with clothing, food and medicine. As "Operation Mullah" unfolded and the Brits began to earn the trust of local clerics, they received additional requests:

It was not long before some imams even began to take team members into their confidence and to disclose their most personal complaints, such as their sexual debilities. The answer to the imams’ pleas: Viagra. “We hesitantly gave Viagra to a few mullahs,” says the adviser. “And after a few months they were all demanding the drug, so we began ordering and distributing large quantities.”
This story, alas, does not have a happy ending, at least for the British. After taking these Viagra-popping imams on a tour of the UK (to show how Muslims live and worship freely in the West) they were reportedly dismayed to hear the clerics refer to the British and Americans as "invaders" who would soon be driven out of Afghanistan.

This isn't the first time Viagra has been used in an attempt to win Afghans over to their Western occupiers. The CIA reportedly plied friendly warlords with the drug as payback for tips on the Taliban's whereabouts. Viagra was preferred to cash because, as one CIA operator told the Washington Post, a warlord's sudden extravagance would be noticeable and instantly suspect. His prowess and nocturnal stamina, less so (unless he suffered one of the dreaded side effects).

Not surprisingly, the Taliban are less enthusiastic about the stuff. Just last week, the Pakistani Taliban warned shopkeepers in the Khyber region to stop selling Viagra and "obscene films."

(Photo: Pfizer)

February 14, 2013

Has Obama Lost Pakistan?


In his State of the Union address earlier this week, President Barack Obama had this to say about U.S. counterterrorism efforts in the (mostly) Muslim world:

Today, the organization that attacked us on 9/11 is a shadow of its former self. Different al Qaeda affiliates and extremist groups have emerged – from the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. The threat these groups pose is evolving. But to meet this threat, we don’t need to send tens of thousands of our sons and daughters abroad, or occupy other nations. Instead, we will need to help countries like Yemen, Libya, and Somalia provide for their own security, and help allies who take the fight to terrorists, as we have in Mali. And, where necessary, through a range of capabilities, we will continue to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.

As we do, we must enlist our values in the fight. That is why my Administration has worked tirelessly to forge a durable legal and policy framework to guide our counterterrorism operations. Throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts. I recognize that in our democracy, no one should just take my word that we’re doing things the right way. So, in the months ahead, I will continue to engage with Congress to ensure not only that our targeting, detention, and prosecution of terrorists remains consistent with our laws and system of checks and balances, but that our efforts are even more transparent to the American people and to the world.

One place left unmentioned in the president's address was Pakistan, where a recent Gallup poll indicates that disapproval of U.S. leadership is at an all-time high:

With President Barack Obama's first term characterized by strained relations between Pakistan and the U.S., more than nine in 10 Pakistanis (92%) disapprove of U.S. leadership and 4% approve, the lowest approval rating Pakistanis have ever given.
Pakistanis now more than at any other time in the past three years feel threatened by interaction with the West, according to a May 12-June 6, 2012, survey. A majority (55%) say interaction between Muslim and Western societies is "more of a threat," up significantly from 39% in 2011. This sharp increase is observed at a time of heightened Pakistani concerns regarding U.S. encroachment on Pakistani sovereignty, including an intensified number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, as well as the aforementioned May 2011 killing of bin Laden by the United States military.

Enlisting "values" in the fight against terrorism is all well and good, but values projection isn't a direct marketing campaign. American values are understood abroad not through rhetoric, but through policy. While drones are certainly a more cost efficient, and less invasive, form of interventionism, they are a form of intervention nonetheless. The president came into office hoping for a reset with the Muslim world, but the "Muslim world" isn't a place; it's a concept comprised of many different sects, regions, languages, nationalities and interests. As it turns out, matters of sovereignty, national identity, regional supremacy and patriotism matter to Muslims, too. (Shocking, I know!)

Over 10 percent of the world's Muslim population resides in restive, nuclear-armed Pakistan. There's certainly no panacea for fighting fringe organizations like al-Qaeda, but if President Obama is so concerned about Muslim extremism, then he might want to stop alienating the places where most of the world's Muslims happen to live.

February 7, 2013

Afghans Paid More in Bribes in 2012

Corruption cost Afghans $3.9 billion last year, according to a new report from the UN. That's a 40 percent increase from last year and is double what the Afghan government takes in in revenue.

Interestingly, the number of Afghans who say they have paid bribes is down nine percent since 2009 (to 50 percent); yet a full 68 percent of Afghans surveyed said it was just fine if lower public officials supplemented their incomes with bribery.

(AP Photo)

January 16, 2013

Pakistan Foreign Minister: bin Laden Was an "Intelligence Failure"

Amidst growing international frustration with Pakistan, Hina Rabbani Khar defends her country's policies. She describes the discovery of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan as a "huge intelligence failure" and "infuriating."

At least one of those descriptions is accurate...

January 14, 2013

Staying in Afghanistan


There is a growing chorus of right-of-center national security analysts warning that President Obama's Afghan pullout is going to end in disaster. While I don't agree with their prescription (stationing tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely) I do think they're right to warn about the deterioration in security that's likely to follow a U.S. withdrawal. Afghanistan may not revert completely to Taliban rule or abject disorder, but it seems foolish to blithely assume, as the Obama administration's public rhetoric suggests, that all is well on the path to a stable "transition" to Afghan control.

But this deterioration points to one of the underlying problems with stationing troops in Afghanistan forever. If ten years of U.S. and international efforts have not produced durable stability, why would ten or twenty more years do the same?

More broadly, the failure in Afghanistan points to a central issue facing U.S. and Western counter-terrorism policy in general -- how to deal with ungoverned spaces? The French intervention in Mali, the not-so-covert American campaigns in the Horn of Africa and Yemen, the drone war in Pakistan -- these are all ways of grappling with the threat without committing massive numbers of soldiers and financial resources to rebuild governing institutions. It's likely that Afghanistan will fall into this category as well after 2014. This template may not satisfy the neoconservative fantasy of Kipling 2.0, but it's hard to see a feasible alternative that won't quickly bankrupt already economically challenged governments.

(AP Photo)

December 24, 2012

Keeping Troops in Afghanistan

Max Boot argues that the U.S. should station large numbers of troops in Afghanistan indefinitely, then undermines his argument at the end of his op-ed:

It is hard to imagine how anyone in the Obama administration could conclude that a force of just 6,000 personnel would be sufficient after 2014 when, even with 68,000 troops today, the United States cannot prevent the Taliban and Haqqanis from operating openly an hour’s drive from Kabul. Such a precipitous drawdown vastly increases the risk of a Taliban takeover. [Emphasis mine.]

It's obvious to even the war's die-hard supporters that there is no sufficient American force available to keep the Taliban and Haqqani militants from threatening Afghanistan. So why subject an arbitrary number to an indefinite stay in Afghanistan?

November 27, 2012

How Many Troops Does the U.S. Need to Maintain in Afghanistan?


According to the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is negotiating to leave 10,000 or more U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 - the date which, you'll recall, Vice President Biden adamantly insisted there would no U.S. troops in the country. Imagine that.

These 10,000, according to the Journal, would be on hand for counterterrorism missions and to continue training Afghan security forces.

Is this enough? Too many? Kimberly and Frederick Kagan argue that the U.S. would need to sustain three times as many troops to safely conduct both missions.

I'm not qualified to judge which precise number is logistically or practically wise, but this is almost besides the point. The central question is: is it worth it to have 10,000 (or 30,000 troops) in Afghanistan to battle what is left of al-Qaeda? Are the remnants of the organization that potent? Can the threat from al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal region be mitigated another way? And finally, how likely is it that this troop commitment will yoke the U.S. to the fate of the current Afghan government and lead to calls for more troops down the road if the Taliban insurgency grows more lethal (the Kagans' analysis does not even grapple with such a possibility, which should raise red flags).

It's striking that we can talk blithely about such a long-term commitment without any debate or argument about al-Qaeda's potency in Pakistan's tribal region. I'm not averse to leaving forces behind in Afghanistan for such a purpose, but it would be nice if the administration presented some evidence or made some kind of argument that they're vitally necessary.

(AP Photo)

November 6, 2012

Pakistan's War on Education

Mohammed Hanif recounts the country's hostility to education, which goes well beyond the brutal depredations of the Taliban:

What is conveniently ignored in the debate over Malala is the fact that every 10th child in the world who doesn't go to school is Pakistani. The Taliban are not the only ones keeping kids out of school. Some fairly secularly minded people think of Pakistan's children as someone else's children – not deserving the education that their money buys for their own kids. As such, Pakistan is a booming marketplace for private education. Ask anyone on the street, and they'll tell you it's the biggest business in Pakistan.

October 25, 2012

Is Afghanistan a U.S. Win or Loss?

Steven Metz makes the case for the win column, arguing along lines I've long agreed with: when viewed through a narrow prism of striking back at al-Qaeda and running out the Taliban, the U.S. did succeed in Afghanistan. It is only in light of the expanded goals of state building and waging a counter-insurgency that the U.S. has fallen short. Here's Metz:

For a while it appeared that the United States might attain this more ambitious outcome. But American strategy quickly floundered on flawed assumptions: that it was possible to build an Afghan government which shared American priorities and objectives; that it was advisable to build a centralized Afghan state in which the national government controlled all national territory; and that it was possible not only to defeat the Taliban decisively, but to eradicate them. None of these assumptions proved true. The regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had very different priorities and objectives than its American allies. A national government in full control of Afghanistan was an historical rarity unlikely to be recreated. And so long as the Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan, it could not be eradicated.

Joshua Foust isn't buying it:

It is difficult to see how one avoids the conclusion that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has failed. That doesn’t mean it is a defeat, per se, but our original objectives, several times over, have proven impossible to meet. In the aftermath, however, we should be pondering how to manage that failure to avoid defeat. Assisting Afghanistan in the security transition post-withdrawal, encouraging them to reconcile the political elements of the Taliban, and cracking down on Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorist groups inside Afghanistan all require continued presence, attention, and — yes — even troops. It will be a far cry from the idealist goals President Obama initially came into office with, but it would not be a total defeat somehow redefined as a success.

Managing failure is a far cry from simply declaring success and walking away. By arguing for just that, Metz is doing the war, and the very real challenges it poses to the future security of the region and the U.S., a disservice.

I think Foust is right that "managing failure" is a more accurate description, but his I think his description of what needs to be done reveals why folks like Metz are looking for a way to ease America's exit from the war.

To wit: what if the U.S. can't reconcile "political elements" of the Taliban with a U.S.-aligned government in Kabul? What if Afghan forces cannot stand on their own after 2014? What if "cracking down on Pakistan" doesn't work? Is the U.S. fated to fight a proxy war against Pakistan inside Afghanistan for decades? Why is that in the U.S. interest?

By 2014, the Afghans will have had over another year of training. If they cannot adequately hold their own against the Taliban, what is the rationale for continued investment in U.S. blood and treasure?

What I take Metz to be saying is that, when viewed through the prism of keeping the U.S. safe from terrorism, the U.S. has done just about all it can do in Afghanistan. The threat isn't completely gone, as Foust notes, and waiting around until it is is an unreasonable standard. It doesn't take much for a small group of people to organize a killing spree - no matter where they are.

If the U.S. is reluctant to dump tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Mali, or Yemen, or Somalia to combat jihadists, it makes no sense to sustain such a huge presence in Afghanistan for so long. An abrupt exit and complete cessation of all aid next month would be counter-productive, but Afghanistan has to be relegated to the ranks of countries - like Yemen - that pose a manageable risk to the U.S. and not a fetish object because it just so happened to be where bin Laden found a place to live for few years.

We also, really, need context. The threat that any American will die from terrorism - from Afghanistan or anywhere - is infinitesimal. At a certain point, a basic cost/benefit analysis has to kick in.

October 16, 2012

Political Honesty: Afghan Pullout Edition

"We are leaving in 2014, period, and in the process, we're going to be saving over the next 10 years another $800 billion," Biden said. "We've been in this war for over a decade. The primary objective is almost completed. Now all we're doing is putting the Kabul government in a position to be able to maintain their own security. It's their responsibility, not America's." - Joseph Biden, October 2012
Last week, U.S. and Afghan negotiators met in Kabul to talk about the Bilateral Security Agreement that will govern the extension of U.S. troops past 2014, when President Barack Obama said the combat mission in Afghanistan will end and the U.S. will complete the transition of the entire country to Afghan government control....

Grossman said Tuesday that the point of the upcoming negotiations is to agree on an extension of the U.S. troop presence well past 2014, for the purposes of conducting counterterrorism operations and training and advising the Afghan security forces. - Josh Rogin, October 2012

In other words, when a politican says "we are leaving" it actually means "we are trying to stay."

What's particularly galling about this is that the administration won't actually defend its position on the merits. If leaving a residual force inside Afghanistan is a good idea, let's hear the rationale. While I am skeptical of a large-scale counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, I'm sure I'm not alone in seeing the value in retaining a force to target whatever al-Qaeda elements still remain inside Afghanistan (and over the border in Pakistan).

Instead, we get dishonesty.

October 12, 2012

Scoring the VP Debate


Speaking strictly about the foreign policy sections of last night's VP debate (and not about Biden's near-constant harrumphing), I thought the vice president had the edge, but he was not without his shortcomings. To tick off the list:

Libya: Ryan made some of the strongest points of the night on Libya - not ideological points about the wisdom of the intervention - but on the more basic insistence that the consulate was woefully insecure and that the administration's response to the attack was completely inadequate. As Josh Rogin pointed out, Biden completely contradicted the State Department by insisting that the administration had no idea that the consulate had requested more security - digging the administration even deeper into a mess they should have never created in the first place.

Syria: Biden (and the moderator) essentially forced Ryan into conceding that the major thing a Romney administration would do differently in Syria would be to call Assad bad names. Literally, the big difference Ryan was able to elucidate between his ticket and the Obama administration was that when the Syrian revolt started he would not have called Bashar Assad a reformer. It was extremely obvious that there was no substantive difference in policy between the two camps when it came to America's response. (Incidentally, Biden appeared to suggest that the U.S. was actually arming the rebels - did anyone catch that?)

Afghanistan: Here too, Biden exposed the Romney/Ryan position as little more than baseless carping. Ryan agreed with the 2014 withdrawal but said that more U.S. troops should be in Afghanistan currently fighting and dying rather, as Biden noted, than "trained" Afghans. But while Biden sounded emphatic about a U.S. departure in 2014, the actual agreement between Kabul and Washington leaves open the possibility that small numbers of combat troops will remain in Afghanistan after 2014 for counter-terrorism missions. Biden's strident insistence that we'd be out of there no matter what was either a signal that the U.S. would not seek to keep troops there beyond the deadline or a misrepresentation of the administration's longer-term strategy.

Iran: Both Ryan and Biden fell victim to their own rhetoric on Iran. For his part, Ryan's insistence that the U.S. had to have "credibility" for the Mullahs to knuckle under was exploded, painfully, when Martha Raddatz asked him if he really expected the U.S. to restore this supposedly lost credibility in two months - or by the time Iran is expected to reach the 90 percent enrichment thresh-hold they are moving toward. As with Syria (and reflecting, I think, the over-reliance on neoconservative advisers) it was clear that the the Romney/Ryan position places an amazing amount of faith in bombastic rhetoric to achieve concrete ends.

Ryan's principle Iran argument was that it took the Obama administration too long to enact crushing sanctions - a point I think Biden dealt with by noting that Iran is actually not building a bomb and that time remains on our side. Ryan was also running away from the very clear implication of his rhetoric: that a vote for Romney/Ryan is a vote for another war in the Mideast.

Yet Biden fell into his own trap on Iran. While trying to tamp down the hysteria about an imminent Iranian weapon, Biden also pointedly noted that the U.S. would stop Iran from getting a bomb no matter what and that "this president doesn't bluff." So even as Biden was trying to paint Ryan as eager for another war in the Mideast, he was explicitly promising that the Obama administration would start one itself if Iran didn't change course.

Stepping back, it was rather disheartening to see, as Larison noted, a foreign policy discussion that omitted extremely important issues like China, Asia and the Eurozone crisis. There's more - a lot more - to U.S. foreign policy than the Middle East, but you would never know it listening to the debate.

(AP Photo)

October 3, 2012

Negotiating with the Taliban: Hopeless?


Spencer Ackerman writes that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is rapidly collapsing absent a new-found willingness to negotiate with the Taliban:

Without a settlement with the Taliban, there is no hope of ending an insurgency that withstood the U.S. troop surge of 2010-2012. The U.S. will either have to rely on an Afghan security force that has killed more than 50 U.S. and NATO troops this year alone, or end up prolonging its costly commitment to Afghanistan.

According to The New York Times, U.S. officials have given up on their on-again, off-again talks with the Taliban, and are punting negotiations over to the Afghans after the major U.S. drawdown in 2014. It’s entirely possible that’s a negotiating tactic to compel the Taliban to come to terms. But if the U.S. isn’t bluffing, writes the Times, “one of the cornerstones of [its] strategy to end the war” has crumbled.

Even the most earnest U.S. negotiating effort is bound to hit upon a major American disadvantage: at some point, U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan, while the Taliban remain. The U.S. is trying to paper over this dynamic with promises to never leave but how believable are those pledges? The U.S. and NATO presence is going to be scaled back after 2014, and given that the surge of U.S. forces wasn't able to blunt the Taliban's momentum, it's hard to imagine fewer forces would do any better. What incentive does the Taliban have to make major concessions - or honor them once Western forces are dramatically drawn down?

That leaves the U.S. with very little leverage to negotiate with. Perhaps the only remaining, credible threat would be to make clear that harboring international terrorists on Afghan soil is a U.S. red line that would invite air strikes and special forces attacks - the kind that swiftly collapsed the Taliban regime and drove them out of the country in 2001/2. Ultimately, preventing Afghan territory from serving as a base for global terror strikes is the only "vital" U.S. interest in the country anyway.

(AP Photo)

September 27, 2012

Debating Drones


Joshua Foust makes some good points pushing back against the Living Under Drones report, noting that the methodology was designed to produce a somewhat skewed report:

For starters, the sample size of the study is 130 people. In a country of 175 million, that is just not representative. 130 respondents isn't representative even of the 800,000 or so people in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), the region of Pakistan where most drone strikes occur. Moreover, according to the report's methodology section, there is no indication of how many respondents were actual victims of drone strikes, since among those 130 they also interviewed "current and former Pakistani government officials, representatives from five major Pakistani political parties, subject matter experts, lawyers, medical professionals, development and humanitarian workers, members of civil society, academics, and journalists."

The authors did not conduct interviews in the FATA, but Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, and Peshawar. The direct victims they interviewed were contacted initially by the non-profit advocacy group Foundation for Fundamental Rights, which is not a neutral observer (their explicit mission is to end the use of drones in Pakistan).

Foust also asks an important question: if not drones, what? When the Pakistani army attempted to clear militants from the FATA, it resulted in massive destruction and tens of thousands of refugees - far worse than the toll inflicted by U.S. drones.

But does this mean the drone program, in its current form, is the "only" choice? Foust thinks so:

The targets of drone strikes in Pakistan sponsor insurgents in the region that kill U.S. soldiers and destabilize the Pakistani state (that is why Pakistani officials demand greater control over targeting). They cannot simply be left alone to continue such violent attacks. And given the Pakistani government's reluctance either to grant the FATA the political inclusion necessary for normal governance or to establish an effective police force (right now it has neither), there is no writ of the state to impose order and establish the rule of law.

But here's the thing: how many drone strikes are targeting international terrorists (i.e. those training or plotting to hit U.S. and Western targets abroad) and how many are hitting local insurgents who are fighting the U.S. because it's decamped in Afghanistan?

This seems like a critical distinction (although these two militant groups likely collaborate) because one group poses an enduring threat to the United States and the other ceases to be an American problem once Washington abandons its flailing nation building effort in Afghanistan. From publicly available information, it's not always clear which of these groups is being targeted. The tempo of the drone strikes suggests that it's less about hitting international terrorists and more about extending the Afghan war into the Pakistani sanctuaries that are out of reach of U.S. troops.

That leads to a second, far more important, question: is the U.S. targetting militants that threaten the Pakistani state, or those sponsored by the Pakistani state. It's rather perverse to argue that drones are critical to protect Pakistan from militant violence when that country's intelligence service believes it is at war with you and uses militants to advance its own interests.

Underlying these questions is a somewhat understandable/somewhat troubling lack of clarity (and outright falsehoods) from the Obama administration as to what's going on. While much of the concern over the drone war comes from questions about its effectiveness (or lack thereof) in curbing terrorist violence, we should be equally concerned about how the use of this weapon is enshrining some of the worst tendencies in Washington with respect to democratic accountability and the rule of law.

(AP Photo)

September 26, 2012

The Costs of the U.S. Drone War

A new report, Living Under Drones, goes on the ground in Pakistan to document the U.S. drone war. I've just started reading it, but the above teaser video does a good job setting up the overall thrust. Long story short: the U.S. line on drone strikes as being surgical appears to be vastly overstated.

September 19, 2012

Has the U.S. Admitted Defeat in Afghanistan?

James Joyner thinks so:

That the war in Afghanistan has been unwinnable has been obvious to most outside analysts since well before the so-called surge of 2009. Now, the United States government has finally admitted the obvious in deeds if not words.

Following the murder of six NATO troops in yet another "green on blue" attack in which Afghan soldiers supposedly fighting on our side killed NATO troops, the coalition has all but ended combined operations with Afghan army and police forces at the tactical level, requiring general officer approval for exceptions.

While spokesmen insisted that "we're not walking away" from the training and advisory mission that is the ostensible reason for continued Western presence in Afghanistan eleven years into the fight there, that statement rings hollow. As American Security Project Central and South Asia specialist Joshua Foust puts it, "The training mission is the foundation of the current strategy. Without that mission, the strategy collapses. The war is adrift, and it's hard to see how anyone can avoid a complete disaster at this point."

As Joyner notes, it would be nice if the presidential contenders could spare a few minutes to sketch out their thoughts on what U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is going to look like going forward.

August 17, 2012

Who Will Determine Afghanistan's Fate?

Michael Hart makes an obvious, if politically uncomfortable, point:

However effective Western military organizations are in transitioning to Afghan control, the country’s future will not be decided primarily by the residual structures and legacies of Western involvement, the current Taliban insurgency or even any formal process of reconciliation. Rather, it will be decided more by the country’s ethnic character, the particular nature of local and national governance, and the influence of neighboring powers with enduring geopolitical and strategic imperatives in the region far stronger than those of the West.

In other words, the future of Afghanistan will be determined by forces that antedate the latest Western effort to direct a turbulent area—and which probably will long survive this and future efforts to dominate the country.

The key questions that emerge from this conclusion are whether the U.S. can preserve the ability to deny al-Qaeda safe havens should the Taliban re-establish control over larger portions of Afghanistan and whether a non-Pashtun stronghold can hold out against a stronger Taliban insurgency. Hart makes the case the answer can be a provisional "yes" to both, but the reality is that Afghanistan is going to remain a violent and dangerous state for years to come.

July 25, 2012

Romney Sets Afghan Timetable (But It's Different Than Obama's ... Somehow)

David Sherfinski makes a good catch:

Earlier this year, presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called President Obama "extraordinarily naive" for putting a timetable of transferring control of Afghanistan to the country's security forces by the end of 2014.

On Tuesday, speaking at the Veterans of Foreign Wars' annual meeting, he said that "as president, my goal in Afghanistan will be to complete a successful transition to Afghan security forces by the end of 2014."

But did you know that not all timetables are alike? According to Romney's senior adviser Kevin Madden:

"[Mr. Romney] mentioned the date as a goal to turn over to Afghan security forces, but not as a political calendar — instead, a calendar for securing the situation there," Mr. Madden continued. "I think the president put the premium on the calendar, where Governor Romney is putting a premium on the situation on the ground."


July 9, 2012

Driving with NATO Through Pakistan

GlobalPost's Suzanna Koster interviews a NATO truck driver making the dangerous journey from Pakistan.

June 6, 2012

Going to War with Pakistan Won't Stabilize Afghanistan


Max Boot wants to send drones after the Taliban inside Pakistan:

There have been a few drone strikes on the Haqqani Network in and around Waziristan, Pakistan, but none, so far as I am aware, on the Taliban leadership headquartered in Quetta, Pakistan–nor on the operational Taliban hub at Chaman, Pakistan, just across the border from southern Afghanistan. These groups are actively killing Americans all the time–more than al-Qaeda Central can boast of these days. Yet we have not unleashed the CIA and Special Operations Forces to do to them what they have done to al-Qaeda. Why not? Largely because of the sensitivities of the Pakistani government which is an active sponsor of the Taliban and the Haqqanis.

But so what? The Pakistanis have declining leverage over us; they have kept their supply line to Afghanistan closed since last fall and it has not seriously disrupted NATO operations. The administration needs to figure out whether it’s serious about leaving a more stable Afghanistan behind when the bulk of U.S. troops are withdrawn. If it is, it will unleash the Reapers against the Taliban and Haqqanis–not just against al-Qaeda.

It's just as likely that U.S. efforts to expand the number of drone war targets would lead Pakistan to destabilize Afghanistan even more than it has already done. Drones can't defeat the Taliban insurgency. What they can do, at best, is pare back the leadership. But if that comes at the expense of enraging Pakistan, the gains would be quickly undermined. As Anatol Lieven has noted, Pakistan has indeed supported the Afghan Taliban but it has not equipped them with very powerful weaponry nor directed them to wage the kind of proxy war they could fight if the Pakistani military decided it wanted to (aka what happened to the Soviets during their Afghan occupation).

The end result of this strategy would be to turn Afghanistan into a proxy-war battlefield between the CIA and ISI at a time when the CIA should be focused on keeping whatever's left of al-Qaeda from rearing its head. Utopian schemes of an Afghanistan free of Taliban or Pakistani influence shouldn't get in the way (again) of a more limited and achievable goal.

A wider drone campaign against sensitive Pakistani targets also enhances the risks of destabilizing Pakistan, which would be an absolute disaster for U.S. interests for reasons that should be clear to everyone.

(AP Photo)

May 21, 2012

Obama's Fuzzy Afghan Math

At the Monday meetings, leaders will also discuss the expense of continued support for Afghanistan’s security forces after 2014.

The United States spent $12 billion last year, 95 percent of the total cost, to train and equip an Afghan army and police force that is expected to total 352,000 by this fall. With a gross domestic product of about $17 billion, Afghanistan is incapable of funding a force that size.

As it looks for a way to cut future costs and assumes an eventual political solution to the war among the Afghans themselves, the administration has projected that Afghanistan’s security needs could be met even if the force were cut by up to one-third. It estimates the cost of sustaining the reduced force at about $4.1 billion a year, half of which the United States would provide. Afghanistan would pay about $500,000. [Emphasis mine] - Washington Post

I think these numbers tell the story of Afghanistan. First, we just spent $12 billion to bring Afghan security forces to a level that is patently unsustainable - and so the Afghan Army is going to shrink back to a more manageable size. We literally spent billions and put U.S. trainers at risk to develop an army that's going to shrink away in two years. How is that not an egregious waste?

Moreover, even the $4 billion-a-year seems fanciful. First, it's grounded on the assumption of a political settlement. Is that likely? What if there isn't one? And what if Europe decides to pass on "investing" anymore of their increasingly scarce resources in Afghanistan? I don't know how much aid the Taliban is receiving from Pakistan or Persian Gulf donors, but I'm willing to bet it's nothing remotely close to $4 billion, and they're fighting just fine. What the Afghans are missing isn't shiny uniforms or training in how to kill one another, but institutions worth fighting for. The U.S. has not developed those institutions after 10 years and it's impossible to imagine those institutions developing as the aid begins to dry up and the Afghans are left to "take the lead."

May 16, 2012

Putting a Price Tag on the Afghan War

Anthony Cordesman tries (pdf):

The fact remains, however, that if the CRS and OMB figures for FY2001-FY2013 that follow are totaled for all direct spending on the war, they reach $641.7 billion, of which $198.2 billion – or over 30% – will be spent in FY2012 and FY2013. This is an incredible amount of money to have spent with so few controls, so few plans, so little auditing, and almost no credible measures of effectiveness

As Cordesman also notes, it's laid the foundation for a tremendous amount of Afghan corruption and created a state so precarious it could easily collapse as the funding is withdrawn - as it must be, over time.

It will be interesting to see if the self-styled stewards of America's fiscal responsibility will have anything to say about this. Just today, National Review published a piece lambasting the (admittedly poor) investment in GM which soaked tax payers to the tune of about $66 billion. I wonder what they'd make of the hundreds of billions invested in Afghanistan - a growing share of which is being spent on President Obama's watch.

May 3, 2012

Time Well Spent

Powell and Musharraf on Tuesday both emphasized a role for moderate Taliban elements in a future government, although the Northern Alliance immediately rejected any Taliban presence in a future political arrangement. - Time, 2001
In coordination with the Afghan government, my Administration has been in direct discussions with the Taliban. We have made it clear that they can be a part of this future if they break with al Qaeda, renounce violence, and abide by Afghan laws. Many members of the Taliban - from foot soldiers to leaders - have indicated an interest in reconciliation. A path to peace is now set before them. Those who refuse to walk it will face strong Afghan Security Forces, backed by the United States and our allies. - President Obama, 2012

Rather than find some kind of ad-hoc, messy and compromising ending to the Afghan war in 2001, Washington decided to spend hundreds of lives and billions of dollars to find an ad-hoc, messy and compromising ending to the Afghan war in 2012 (or 2014 or whenever). Brilliant.

March 19, 2012

Can the U.S. Work an Afghan Miracle?

Max Boot cautions against "going wobbly" in Afghanistan:

But President Obama’s hesitancy and irresolution should not be an excuse for Republicans to abandon the war effort. They should continue to pressure the president to respect the advice of his commanders in the field, who want to keep 68,000 troops through 2014, with a substantial residual presence after that.

What, after all, is the alternative? Peace talks have scant prospect of success given that the Taliban are now betting—perhaps rightly—that they can simply wait us out. The likely result of a precipitous American pullout, which would trigger an equally hasty exit by our NATO allies, would be a major Taliban offensive in the east and south that would aim to take back Kandahar, Marja, and other population centers that have been secured at considerable cost over the past few years. The Afghan security forces would be likely to splinter along ethnic lines, and the entire country could well be plunged into a civil war as it was in the 1990s, when Kabul was regularly on the receiving end of artillery bombardments.

So if the U.S. reverts to its "residual force" footprint now instead of 2014, all these terrible things will happen. But if we don't, then all of the nascent problems Boot highlights would be resolved or substantially mitigated in 18 months?

No one is unrealistic about what a withdrawal of U.S. troops will mean for Afghanistan's internal security, but seeing as that is ultimately an issue for Afghans to resolve, the focus needs to be on how large numbers of troops and related expenses are serving U.S. security interests.

March 15, 2012

Victor Davis Hanson, Meet Robert Pape

Victor Davis Hanson wants an explanation for the increase in violence in Afghanistan:

There are lots of legitimate differences over U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Arguments continue over what happened to the “good” or “real” war that after the first five years of relative quiet (from 2001 through 2006 there were never more than 100 Americans lost per year) began heating up in 2007–8 (even as Iraq quieted), and by 2009 (317 lost) and 2010 (499 lost) had become a mess, even as we began to pour reinforcements and more money into the country. (No one to this date has explained adequately why violence increased even as we put more troops and material into the country and disengaged our efforts and attention from Iraq. There are all sorts of possible explanations, but none really have been offered.)

It's not much of a mystery. Here's Robert Pape:

In 2001, the United States toppled the Taliban and kicked Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan with just a few thousand of its own troops, primarily through the combination of American air power and local ground forces from the Northern Alliance. Then, for the next several years, the United States and NATO modestly increased their footprint to about 20,000 troops, mainly limiting the mission to guarding Kabul, the capital. Up until 2004, there was little terrorism in Afghanistan and little sense that things were deteriorating.

Then, in 2005, the United States and NATO began to systematically extend their military presence across Afghanistan. The goals were to defeat the tiny insurgency that did exist at the time, eradicate poppy crops and encourage local support for the central government. Western forces were deployed in all major regions, including the Pashtun areas in the south and east, and today have ballooned to more than 100,000 troops.

As Western occupation grew, the use of the two most worrisome forms of terrorism in Afghanistan — suicide attacks and homemade bombs — escalated in parallel. There were no recorded suicide attacks in Afghanistan before 2001. According to data I have collected, in the immediate aftermath of America’s conquest, the nation experienced only a small number: none in 2002, two in 2003, five in 2004 and nine in 2005.

But in 2006, suicide attacks began to increase by an order of magnitude — with 97 in 2006, 142 in 2007, 148 in 2008 and more than 60 in the first half of 2009. Moreover, the overwhelming percentage of the suicide attacks (80 percent) has been against United States and allied troops or their bases rather than Afghan civilians, and nearly all (95 percent) carried out by Afghans....

The picture is clear: the more Western troops we have sent to Afghanistan, the more the local residents have viewed themselves as under foreign occupation, leading to a rise in suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. (We see this pattern pretty much any time an “outside” armed force has tried to pacify a region, from the West Bank to Kashmir to Sri Lanka.)

March 13, 2012

Rory Stewart on Afghanistan

Rory Stewart, the British MP who traveled Afghanistan on foot in 2001 and 2002, argues that it's time to accelerate the Western withdrawal:

Did our mission go wrong because Nato had too few troops; or because it sent too many? Could a different strategy have fixed the situation; or was it always impossible? The reason no longer matters. Whatever the explanation, things will not improve: Nato will not “solve the relationship with Pakistan”; it will never create “an effective, credible, legitimate Afghan government”; and in most parts of the country it has already lost “the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.

Some US and UK generals have long been pressing for “just one more fighting season”. They feel that with just a little more time, things will improve. They are wrong. The longer we stay, the worse things will become. The Prime Minister made a wise and difficult decision to set a final end-date for combat operations. The UK cannot leave tomorrow because we need to ensure an orderly transfer, help the Afghan government take over, safely extract our men and equipment, and stay in step with our Nato allies (and in particular the US).

February 27, 2012

Aimless in Afghanistan

The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan sent a top-secret cable to Washington last month warning that the persistence of enemy havens in Pakistan was placing the success of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan in jeopardy, U.S. officials said.

The cable, written by Ryan C. Crocker, amounted to an admission that years of U.S. efforts to curtail insurgent activity in Pakistan by the lethal Haqqani network, a key Taliban ally, were failing. Because of the intended secrecy of that message, Crocker sent it through CIA channels rather than the usual State Department ones. - Washington Post

It's understandable why Washington wants Pakistan to end its support for the Haqqani network, but it's impossible to understand why we've based our Afghan strategy around the idea that this support is actually going to disappear and Afghanistan will be "stabilized" according to our prerogatives. It's been obvious for years now that Pakistan is looking out for its own interests in Afghanistan irrespective of American threats or inducements. Yet 10 years later, here is America's ambassador saying that all of our efforts will go to pot unless Pakistan does something it has repeatedly made clear it would not do.

Bernard Finel is equally exasperated:

See, our approach to both those countries has been posited on the believe that they are somehow acting contrary to their own interests and that if we just educate them they’ll come around. What do I mean?

Well, we escalated in Afghanistan on the assumption that it would be in Pakistan’s interest to suppress radical groups across the border. Why? Because they are “obviously” a threat to Pakistan. But look, the Pakistanis are not stupid. They get that there is a double-edged sword dynamic here, but they have made a conscious choice to use radical groups as a proxy both to maintain influence in Afghanistan and as a hedge against India. They have a redline, apparently, about the expansion of those groups into Pakistan proper — at least into the provinces beyond the FATA — but otherwise, they have zero interest in supporting the eradication of groups like the Haqqani network. But instead of understanding this definition of their interests, we continue to act as if they are operating under some sort of false consciousness that we can alter simply by, you know, explaining their own interests to them.

Myra MacDonald makes another critique:

Meanwhile, the U.S. strategy is, and has always been, internally inconsistent. At one level it wants to retain military bases in Afghanistan after 2014, which could be used for drone strikes and other military operations against Pakistan where many of the Islamist militants are based. Yet it needs Pakistani endorsement for a deal with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, whose support is required to bring the rest of the movement on board and who is, despite Pakistani official denials, believed to be living in an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) safe house, most likely in Karachi.

In short, however inconsistent the strategy, it has depended on bluff. And that bluff is weakening.

I am increasingly reminded of the words of one western official speaking last year on Afghanistan: ”We stay we lose, we leave we lose.”

I think it's this zero-sum thinking that has gotten us into trouble in the first place. America can't "lose" in Afghanistan. We've killed bin Laden and shredded most of the senior leadership that perpetrated 9/11. Why is this not enough?

February 2, 2012

Have We Forgotten What Afghanistan Was Like in 2001?

Kori Schake argues that the Obama administration is prematurely writing off the Afghan war:

The evident confusion among senior policy makers in the administration prefigures the administration's cratering commitment to win the war in Afghanistan. The White House has narrowed its war aims from defeating all threats to only defeating al Qaeda. The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, testified to Congress this week that the deaths of senior al Qaeda leadership have brought us to a "critical transitional phase for the terrorist threat," in which the organization has a better than 50 percent probability of fragmenting and becoming incapable of mass-casualty attacks.

The White House appears set to use progress against al Qaeda as justification for accelerating an end to the war in Afghanistan. Since the president has concluded that we aren't fighting the Taliban, just al Qaeda, no need to stick around Afghanistan until the government of that country can provide security and prevent recidivism to Taliban control. The president will declare victory for having taken from al Qaeda the ability to organize large scale attacks, and piously intone that nation building in Afghanistan is Afghanistan's responsibility.

This policy will not win the war in Afghanistan. It will not even end the war in Afghanistan. It will only end our involvement in that ongoing war.

Afghanistan was at war with itself before the U.S. arrived. That it will be at war when we depart isn't really a surprise and isn't something the U.S. can really prevent, or is 11 years worth of proof insufficient on this score?

It's also not clear to me why defeating al-Qaeda is somehow an insufficient standard for victory here. Rather, it is the standard.

Does Schake believe that the Afghan Taliban really have the werewithal or intent to take the fight to the United States once we depart Afghanistan? If Rory Stewart's testimony is to be believed, large numbers of them could not locate the United States on a map.

To the extent that the Afghan Taliban will play host to what's left of al-Qaeda, that is a threat that we can tackle with a far lighter footprint and, yes, no nation building. Complete disengagement would be a mistake. But we need to put the commitment to Afghanistan alongside some rational cost/benefit analysis about the threat we're attempting to mitigate. The danger of an American dying of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil is vanishingly small. It's not zero and will never be zero - no matter how long we stay in Afghanistan and how much money we sink into the place.

February 1, 2012

Pakistan's Support for the Taliban Invalidates U.S. Strategy

One of the central arguments sustaining American strategy in Afghanistan is that a failure to stabilize Afghanistan would have disastrous consequences in Pakistan. Proponents of the Afghan surge argued that while Afghanistan may not be strategically worth such a huge investment in blood and treasure, the prospect of instability spilling into nuclear-armed Pakistan warranted the move.

This argument never made much sense and a recent leaked NATO report confirms it:

The U.S. military said in the document Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) security agency was assisting the Taliban in directing attacks against foreign forces.

Pakistan is the architect of instability in Afghanistan, not its victim. It's more than a little ridiculous to argue that we have to fight Pakistan-backed insurgent forces for the sake of Pakistan's security.

January 31, 2012

President Obama Defends Drone War

In his YouTube/Google + question and answer, President Obama fielded some questions about America's drone campaign. Here, via USA Today, is his defense:

Well, you know, I think that we have to be judicious in how we use drones.

But understand that probably our ability to respect the sovereignty of other countries and to limit our incursions into somebody else's territory is enhanced by the fact that we are able to pinpoint strike on al Qaeda operative in a place where the capacities of that military in that country may not be able to get them.

So, obviously, a lot of these strikes have been in the Fattah [sic] and going after al Qaeda suspects, who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military actions than the one that we're already engaging in.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't be careful about how we proceed on this. And you know, obviously, I'm looking forward to a time where al Qaeda is no longer operative network and, you know, we can refocus a lot of our assets and attention on other issues.

But this is something that we're still having to deal with, there's still active plots that are directed against the United States, and I think we are on the offense now. Al Qaeda's been really weakened, but we've still got a little more work to do, and we've got to make sure that we're using all our capacities in order to deal with it.

Speaking of Google+, you can now find RCW there as well.

January 5, 2012

Unfinished Business in Afghanistan

Two Marines walk the dusty streets at Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan, Dec. 18. As the final U.S. forces departed Iraq, nearly 100,000 American troops continued counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan.
Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

I have a rather polite alarm clock next to my bed.

At night, it douses my room in a cool, blue light. In the morning, it gently nudges me awake with soft tones that gradually increase in severity. The clock offers a welcome contrast to the lonely and gritty discomfort of Afghanistan, to the very concept of War.

But at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning, I was not happy to hear it.

Grumpy and bleary-eyed, I pulled on my desert camouflage uniform and laced up my boots. I’m sure my sentiment was echoed by the other American military men and women spending Christmas away from home.

As a combat journalist and communications specialist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) in Helmand province, Afghanistan, my Christmas morning was spent facilitating a live interview between a Detroit television station and two hometown heroes.

Not far away, on adjacent Camp Bastion, Marine Corps UH-1Y Hueys lifted off into the cold morning air.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369 launched Operation Noel, an effort to deliver care packages and Christmas cheer to Marines in remote outposts that don’t regularly receive mail and don’t enjoy the relative safety I have here at Camp Leatherneck.

While most of the remaining American forces in Iraq were able to make it home in time for Christmas, nearly 100,000 other U.S. troops spent Christmas morning in Afghanistan, quietly working as a part of an international coalition to create an increasingly peaceful and independent infrastructure here.

Continue reading "Unfinished Business in Afghanistan" »

December 15, 2011

A Marine's Christmas Song

Master Sgt. Robert Allen, a native of Pawnee, Okla., serves as the aircraft rescue firefighting chief for Marine Wing Support Squadron 371 in Camp Leatherneck, Afghanistan. An avid musician, Allen wrote a Christmas song for his wife, Carla, as he spends the holidays away from her and their three children.
- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Afghanistan’s getting cold. My Marines and I have hung our Christmas stockings from a table with care, and strung lights along the top of the plywood wall in our office on the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) compound on Camp Leatherneck.

As public affairs Marines, Thanksgiving was spent linking Marines with their hometown television, radio and newspaper outlets, with Christmas promising much of the same.

My favorite part of my job as a combat journalist is meeting and interacting with all the great men and women in uniform, proud Americans who leave their friends and loved ones in the spirit of defense.

But there’s one Marine I’ve met here who certainly stands out.

Master Sgt. Robert Allen, an aircraft rescue firefighter with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, loves playing the guitar. The first time I met the bald-headed Oklahoman with a big smile, it was to take his photo for articles by the Tulsa World and Stillwater News Press.

“Hey,” he said to me anxiously, “Can you listen to this song I wrote, let me know if you think it’s any good?”

Continue reading "A Marine's Christmas Song" »

December 12, 2011

In Photos: America's Secret Drone War

Danger Room has assembled a powerful slide show of graphic photos taken by Noor Behram, a resident of North Waziristan:

Before posting Behram's photos we took a number of measures to confirm as best we could what was being shown. We verified Behram’s bona fides with other news organizations. We sifted through the images, tossing out any pictures that couldn’t correlate with previously reported drone attacks. Then we grilled Behram in a series of lengthy Skype interviews from Pakistan, translated by Akbar, about the circumstances surrounding each of the images.

Still, we weren't at the events depicted. We don't know for sure if the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram, who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.

But we know for sure that these are rare photos from a war zone most Americans never see.

Behram's images are not conclusive proof that the Obama administration was incorrect (or disingenuous) when it claimed that no civilians had been killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, but it's additional evidence that the claim was unfounded. It does beggar belief why such a claim was made in the first place. I suspect most Americans would support drone strikes even if the administration acknowledged that they carry the risk of killing innocent bystanders. Yet rather than level with the public about the hazy nature of the drone campaign, the administration insisted on a clear-cut assertion that no "non-combatants" had been killed.

November 18, 2011

Pakistan Leadership Woes

More good news out of Pakistan:

A growing storm over a confidential memo is laying bare the profound division between Pakistan’s powerful army and its civilian government, and the nation’s relationship with the United States is again at the center of the gulf.

At issue are allegations that the government of President Asif Ali Zardari asked for U.S. help to prevent a military coup after the Navy SEAL raid in May that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The claim is thought to have enraged Pakistan’s army, and the resulting controversy prompted Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, to offer his resignation this week.

The Cable's Josh Rogin has been all over this story.

November 17, 2011

Haqqanis on Tape

According to the Long War Journal, the Haqqani Network has taken a page out of the al-Qaeda playbook and released a video of its fighters doing the jungle-gym routine.

The Journal quotes a source saying that the camp is located in Pakistan.

November 11, 2011

Leadership in the Afghan Sky

Sgt Maj. Steven Lunsford mans the .50-caliber machine gun on a CH-53E Super Stallion during a recent mission in the Afghan sky. Lunsford is the sergeant major of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Boarding a CH-53E Super Stallion at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, recently, I thought a member of the helicopter’s crew looked familiar.

For a recent project I was working in the Helmand River valley, I flew on a Super Stallion from Camp Bastion, a major aviation port in Afghanistan, to a small landing zone attached to a patrol base.

As one of the first passengers on the aircraft at Camp Bastion, I attentively watched a Marine in a flight suit as he attended to cargo being loaded onto the massive aircraft.

Crew chiefs or aerial observers aid with the operations of the helicopter, manning .50-caliber machine guns and managing passengers and cargo. This post is frequently stood by young, junior Marines and noncommissioned officers, but from what I could see of him from under the visor on his helmet, this Marine was older, and I knew him from somewhere.

Continue reading "Leadership in the Afghan Sky" »

November 10, 2011

The Truth About Afghanistan

Army Major General Peter Fuller was relieved of his command for telling the truth Politico that Hamid Karzai was an ungrateful ally. Joshua Foust makes the case that it was the right call and that to the extent that Karzai is a problem, he's one of America's own making:

Complaining about Karzai's zealous regard of Afghan interests over American interests is something of a tradition in both the military and the pro-military commentary class. And in almost all cases, those complaints miss the point entirely. Karzai's failures have little to do with who Karzai is as a person, but are rather tied up in the fundamentally unworkable institution of the Afghan President -- an institution we, the United States (including the United States Military) created for him. His failure is our failure, and complaining about his failure should also imply complaining about our own failure.

Tom Ricks pitches in with a list of 19 true things that insiders and veterans of Afghanistan agree on but that a General shouldn't say. The list should be read in full but a few, in particular, stand out:

Even non-Taliban Afghans don't much like us.

Afghans didn't get the memo about all our successes, so they are positioning themselves for the post-American civil war.

And they're not the only ones getting ready. The future of Afghanistan is probably evolving up north now as the Indians, Russians and Pakistanis jockey with old Northern Alliance types. Interestingly, we're paying more and getting less than any other player.

Speaking of positioning for the post-American civil war, why would the Pakistanis sell out their best proxy shock troops now?

This last point in particular is something I have yet to understand. It seems that every month, Secretary Clinton pops into Pakistan to deliver a "tough" message about how this time, Pakistan better get its act together or else. But the incentives for Pakistan to do this are very weak next to the stakes involved (although there have been hopeful signs of Pakistani rapprochement with India of late). As with Iraq and Iranian influence, the interests at play are geographical ones that no amount of American "will" or rhetoric can surmount.

November 7, 2011

Bombs Away

If you haven't yet read the Wall Street Journal's piece on the U.S. drone program, it's definitely worth your time. In it, we learn about the two-fold nature of drone targeting:

The March 17 attack was a "signature" strike, one of two types used by the CIA, and the most controversial within the administration. Signature strikes target groups of men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren't always known. The bulk of CIA's drone strikes are signature strikes.

The second type of drone strike, known as a "personality" strike, targets known terrorist leaders and has faced less internal scrutiny.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration reportedly agonized over firing submarine-based cruise missiles into Afghanistan to kill bin Laden due to a variety of concerns (the intel was sketchy, there was a high risk of collateral damage, a Gulf prince had parked his jet too close to the target, etc.). This overabundance of caution arguably allowed the 9/11 attacks to unfold. Today, we have the reverse: the U.S. is not only willing to use force against al-Qaeda's leadership (a good thing) but to fire bombs willy-nilly* into Pakistan's tribal region in the hopes of hitting something important.

Without access to any of the intelligence used in targeting, it's impossible to say what's going on but it's telling that the administration is admitting that, in some instances at least, it's willing to kill groups of people inside Pakistan without a firm grasp of their culpability. Is this a strategy that the administration hopes to export into Yemen and Somalia?

Paradoxically, the end result of this aggressive strategy may be the same as the Clinton-era indecisiveness - a heightened risk of a terrorist attack.

*Some poetic license here.

October 28, 2011

A Glimpse at the Future of Afghanistan

Capt. Michael Gagnon teaches Afghan children how to fist bump in the Helmand River Valley of southwestern Afghanistan, Oct. 21. Gagnon, a native of Oxford, Mass., commands a team of roughly 20 men dubbed “Task Force Nomad.” Over the next several weeks, the task force, a subset of Marine Wing Support Squadron 371, will construct or improve helicopter landing zones along the valley.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

Last week, I like to think I had the opportunity to glimpse at the future of Afghanistan.

“Yo, Gimme some chocolate,” said the Pashtun boy.

Four English words and a spirited request for candy demonstrated the effects of a decade of American presence in the region.

“Yo,” answered Capt. Michael Gagnon, a logistics officer with Marine Wing Support Squadron 371. He responded in Pashto that he didn’t have any.

As of last week, I had been in Afghanistan roughly two and a half months and I’d hardly seen any Afghans.

My role as a combat journalist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) means I don’t have the opportunity to interact with the population the way other forces do, but nonetheless, I was eager to be on the ground.

I traveled to the Helmand River Valley to spend a few days with Gagnon, who is on his third Afghan deployment in two years, and his small team, operating out of Patrol Base Alcatraz to construct helicopter landing zones for the small outposts here.

Having spent the last two months in the desert, I found the Helmand River Valley weird. I hadn’t seen a tree since July when I left North Carolina for Afghanistan. The thin strip of lush vegetation surrounding either side of the Helmand River was surreal to me, and I was eager to explore it.

In the midst of constructing a helicopter landing zone for one of the countless patrol bases that dot the heavily-populated valley, Gagnon, myself and the rest of the team encountered a group of curious Afghan children.

Continue reading "A Glimpse at the Future of Afghanistan" »

October 19, 2011

My Path to Afghanistan

1st Lt. Austin Skinner, the platoon commander of 2nd Platoon, Company B, 1st Battalion, 23rd Marine Regiment, searches a vehicle during drug interdiction operations in southwestern Afghanistan, Aug. 18.
-- Photo by Cpl. Brian Adam Jones

By Brian Adam Jones

My path to Afghanistan was as unpredictable as America’s.

I didn’t deserve a single opportunity afforded to me, and I had several. I grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Maryland and New York City. I graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding school in New Hampshire before starting college at Hofstra University on Long Island.

My biggest issue as a teenager was that my laziness exceeded my intelligence. I had no work ethic, no discipline and a frail, selective concept of morality.

The older I got, the more I realized I needed to tear things down and rebuild them the way I wanted them.

At 20, I enlisted in the Marine Corps.

Two years later, an Air Force C-17 Globemaster carried me from Manas Air Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan to Camp Bastion, Afghanistan. I looked out the small window on the door of the plane as the landscape below gradually shifted from snow-capped mountains to barren desert.

I landed in that desert late one summer morning, blasted by hot air as the back ramp of the Globemaster opened.

Continue reading "My Path to Afghanistan" »

October 18, 2011

Why the U.S. Fails With Pakistan

AEI's Thomas Donnelly unearths what I think is a good insight into why the U.S. has so much trouble convincing Pakistan to do what Washington wants it to do:

Pakistan’s problems are deep; indeed, they are embedded in the country’s very identity. But our strategic interests are equally deep. The war in Afghanistan and the rise of India are indicators that the balance of power in South Asia​—​like the balance of power in Europe, the Persian Gulf, or Pacific Asia​—​is emerging as a core security concern of the United States and an increasingly important test of the international system.

A coherent American strategy rests on convincing Islamabad of three things: that the United States has come to South Asia to stay; that India’s rise should be met with strategic cooperation, not competition; and that playing a “China card” won’t work. [Emphasis mine]

I don't think it's plausible to argue that America's interests in Pakistan run as deep as Pakistan's "very identity." Can you imagine what an outside power would have to do to change Washington's conviction that America is an exceptional nation created to spread freedom to the far corners of the Earth? Neither can I, which is why any strategy predicated on such a fundamental revolution in another country's political identity is destined to fail.

October 7, 2011

The Afghan War's Original Sin

In Kabul and Washington, the push is on to wind down a fight that on Friday will mark its 10th anniversary. U.S. officials, who are facing a future of fewer troops and less money for reconstruction, are narrowing their goals for the country. The constrained ambitions come amid pressure from the Obama administration to scale back the U.S. commitment at a time of flagging public support. - Washington Post

There's a telling scene at the 10 minute mark of this Frontline documentary on Afghanistan that I think speaks volumes about our situation there. In it, a former Taliban commander who has flipped sides to support the government has a conversation with a village elder not knowing his microphone is still on. Watching it, one gets the sense that there were two possible outcomes for the U.S. in Afghanistan in October 2011 - a massive effort to police, secure and rebuild the country costing trillions of dollars and entailing the deployment of close to a million coalition forces to seal the borders with Pakistan. Or a sharper pull out that left in place some intelligence collection and the bribing of Northern Alliance fighters to keep the Taliban and al-Qaeda rump on defense. The disastrous hybrid that the Bush administration pursued and that the Obama administration doubled down on has made us even more enemies in Afghanistan without accomplishing all that much.

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

October 5, 2011

U.S. Veterans Views on War

A new poll from Pew Research takes the pulse of U.S. veteran's views on war as compared to other Americans:

While Americans remain supportive of their all-volunteer military (only one half of 1% of the population has been on active duty service in the past decade), the length of the conflicts has reshaped attitudes toward war and sacrifice, the survey found.

Nine out of 10 expressed pride in the troops and three-quarters say they thanked someone in the military. But 45% said neither of the wars fought after the September 11, 2001, attacks has been worth the cost and only a quarter said they are following news of the wars closely. And half of the public say the wars have made little difference in their lives....

More than half of post-9/11 veterans also felt that too much reliance on military force to combat terrorism leads to more terrorism. On this topic, the public view was nearly identical -- 52% said too much force is not a recipe for success.

Post-9/11 veterans were keen supporters of nation-building with 59% supporting those roles for America's service members. But only 45% of the public and pre-9/11 veterans thought the military should be involved.

September 28, 2011

What Is the Obama Administration Doing in Afghanistan?

Pivoting off of the revelation that the U.S. had been aware for years that Pakistan was willing to kill U.S. troops and foment instability in Afghanistan to pursue its interests, Michael Cohen wonders how the administration could have still doubled down in Afghanistan:

One thing we've seen repeatedly in regard to the war in Afghanistan is that Pakistan will, even at the risk of eroding their alliance with the United States, aggressively pursue its interests in Afghanistan - and yet the US strategy for Afghanistan has been based, in part, on the notion that Islamabad would shift its strategic calculus at the urging of US officials (and the carrot of foreign assistance). Two years later we're seeing the singular foolish [sic] of that strategy - but again it should have been evident back then. Rather than trying to get Pakistan to act against its interests the United States should have been looking to put in place a strategy that melded with Pakistan's strategic calculus regarding Afghanistan. We're today reaping the ill-rewards of that approach.

What's even more surreal about this whole episode is that many of the advocates of the Afghanistan surge - including Frederick Kagan and Stephen Biddle - insisted that one of the reasons more American lives and money had to be put at risk in Afghanistan was to - wait for it - protect Pakistan! They saw the Taliban and the instability they caused as a threat to Pakistan when in reality - and as was evident at the time - Pakistan was the architect of this instability and was using it toward their own ends. In other words, the surge boosters completely misread the strategic dynamic.

Like Cohen, I am trying hard to understand the administration's Afghanistan policy - is it being driven by wishful thinking, political cowardice, sheer incompetence or is it just an inability on my part to see the big picture (where things are actually better than they appear). I'm open to any of those interpretations at this point...

September 26, 2011

Graham Throws Down the Gauntlet

Senator Graham is apparently open to starting a war with Pakistan. That will help stabilize Afghanistan.


But even as the Americans pledge revenge against the Haqqanis, and even amid a new debate in the Obama administration about how to blunt the group’s power, there is a growing belief that it could be too late. To many frustrated officials, they represent a missed opportunity with haunting consequences. Responsible for hundreds of American deaths, the Haqqanis probably will outlast the United States troops in Afghanistan and command large swaths of territory there once the shooting stops. - New York Times

Of course they will outlast the United States: they live there.

September 22, 2011

Pakistan's War on the U.S.

U.S. officials said there was mounting evidence that Pakistan's powerful intelligence agency had encouraged a guerrilla network to attack U.S. targets, while a Senate committee voted to make aid to Islamabad conditional on fighting the militants.

The decision by the Senate Appropriations Committee, which did not specify any amount of aid for Pakistan in fiscal 2012, reflects growing anger in Washington over militants operating out of Pakistan and battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Some U.S. intelligence reporting alleges that Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence directorate (ISI) specifically directed, or urged, the Haqqani network to carry out an attack last week on the U.S. Embassy and a NATO headquarters in Kabul, according to two U.S. officials and a source familiar with recent U.S.-Pakistan official contacts. - Reuters

So the U.S. is providing billions in aid to Pakistan's government and that government's intelligence service is urging its proxies to target and kill Americans. Is there any precedent for this? It sounds rather insane.

September 13, 2011

U.S. Views on Winning Afghanistan

A new poll from Rasmussen:

Just 21% of Adults believe the original mission behind the war in Afghanistan has been accomplished. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 60% think the mission has not been accomplished, with another 18% not sure.

Thirty-five percent (35%) of Republicans think the mission to end al Qaeda’s safe harbor has been accomplished, but that compares to just 10% of Democrats and 19% of adults not affiliated with either of the major parties. Most Democrats (75%) and most unaffiliated adults (59%) feel the mission has not been accomplished, and even a plurality (47%) of Republicans agrees.

Yet these findings come at a time when 59% of Likely Voters want all U.S. troops brought home from Afghanistan either immediately or within the next year. Just 22% believe the United States has a clearly defined mission in Afghanistan.

September 6, 2011

9/11's Impact on Pakistan

As the U.S. takes stock of the decade since the 9/11 attacks, it's worth considering the impact elsewhere. First up, Pakistan:

Before 9/11, Pakistan had suffered just one suicide bombing — a 1995 attack on the Egyptian Embassy in the capital, Islamabad, that killed 15 people. In the last decade, suicide bombers have struck Pakistani targets more than 290 times, killing at least 4,600 people and injuring 10,000.

The country averaged nearly six terrorist attacks of various kinds each day in 2010, according to a report by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies....

For Pakistanis, said Cyril Almeida, a leading Pakistani columnist, "it was easy to connect the dots. 9/11 happened, America invaded Afghanistan, and Pakistan went to hell. That's the most common narrative that's offered."

Pakistan's leaders maintain that the alliance with the U.S. against Islamic militants has destroyed the country's investment climate, caused widespread unemployment and ravaged productivity. The government estimates the alliance has cost it $67 billion over the last 10 years.

But it's not as simple as that. Since 2001, the U.S. has sent Pakistan more than $20 billion in direct aid and military reimbursements. And from 2003 to 2007 under Musharraf, the economy grew at a robust rate of 6% a year.

August 5, 2011

Aid Down the Rabbit Hole in Afghanistan

The International Crisis Group relays the latest from Afghanistan:

There is no possibility that any amount of international assistance to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will stabilise the country in the next three years unless there are significant changes in international strategies, priorities and programs. Nor will the Afghan state be in a position by 2015 to provide basic services to its citizens, further undermining domestic stability. Moreover, a rush to the exit and ill-conceived plans for reconciliation with the insurgency by the U.S. and its allies could threaten such gains as have been achieved in education, health and women’s rights since the Taliban’s ouster.

The amount of international aid disbursed since 2001 – $57 billion against $90 billion pledged – is a fraction of what has been spent on the war effort. More importantly, it has largely failed to fulfil the international community’s pledges to rebuild Afghanistan. Poor planning and oversight have affected projects’ effectiveness and sustainability, with local authorities lacking the means to keep projects running, layers of subcontractors reducing the amounts that reach the ground and aid delivery further undermined by corruption in Kabul and bribes paid to insurgent groups to ensure security for development projects.

Is there any way that Afghanistan will not collapse as NATO starts to draw down? It seems impossible to conceive of any other outcome.

July 29, 2011

The Continuation of Politics

Joshua Foust dissects America's failures in Afghanistan:

The biggest barriers to Afghanistan developing economically are political, institutional, and regulatory—not physical or security or investment. Yet, most of the U.S. government’s efforts to improve Afghanistan’s security focus on physical solutions (like expanding the airport in Kandahar to export things like fruit and cement), security solutions (like the Village Security Operations the special operations forces are so enamored with), or foreign direct investment (as the TFBSO is so focused on). They focus on the wrong solutions to the wrong problem.

The U.S. government is not very active in resolving the political issues plaguing Afghanistan’s government, or its relationships with Iran and Pakistan, two absolutely crucial prerequisites to it ever becoming a stable country again. We should not expect a particularly successful outcome so long as the politics of the region are relegated to secondary concerns, if they are concerns at all.

I think it's not simply a lack of concern - it's an inability to solve these political problems. It's not as if the U.S. is not trying - perhaps not at the level of the Afghan potato farmers whose plight Foust relays in his post, but certainly at the level of envoys and embassies. To the extent that this hasn't worked, is it really an issue of inattention or simply reflective of the sheer difficulty (impossibility) of the task?

(AP Photo)

July 21, 2011

The CIA's Controversial Vaccine Program


The news last week that the CIA held a fake polio clinic in Pakistan to get bin Laden's children's DNA has sparked something of an outcry among some journalists. Matthew Steinglass is the latest to pile on, calling the program "despicable and stupid." The basic contention is that there's a lot of ignorance and paranoia in Pakistan, and in the region generally, about vaccinations, and therefore the CIA should have let this ignorance and conspiratorial paranoia guide its attempts to verify bin Laden's identity.

While I'm sympathetic to the argument that the U.S. frequently leaps before it looks when it comes to foreign policy, much of the case against this CIA program hinges on hindsight. Steinglass arguess that: "If the fake vaccination campaign was a necessary part of the operation to "take out" Osama bin Laden, it would have been better to leave Mr bin Laden in. One more ailing ex-terrorist holed up in a ratty house in remote Pakistan, watching old videos of himself; this was not worth jeopardising global vaccination campaigns."

But of course, no one knew he was holed up in a (not at all remote) house watching videos of himself before he was killed. Still, maybe the CIA did over-reach here. What do you think?

(AP Photo)

Pakistan's Nuclear Arsenal


Via the Federation of American Scientists, an analysis of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Click the image for a larger version. According to FAS, Pakistan's nuclear arsenal may approach that of Great Britain in the next decade. Good times.

July 20, 2011

Containing Pakistan

David Rothkopf thinks the U.S. should form an alliance with India to contain Pakistan:

Pakistan is America's ally, of course. We say it all the time. Unfortunately, Pakistan also harbors our enemies, supports our enemies, tolerates the intolerable by our enemies, and is therefore also our enemy. Not all of Pakistan, of course. Just some of the most influential of its elites and institutions as well as substantial cross-sections of its population.

Pakistan therefore has no one to blame for the steady deepening of the security ties between the United States and India than itself. As containing the problems within Pakistan through cooperation with the Pakistanis looks increasingly difficult, it is only natural that the United States should simultaneously develop a Plan B approach. That approach is containment and it necessarily must involve a partnership with India.

I think a tighter partnership with India is very much in America's interests, but not because it's going to somehow squeeze Pakistan into abandoning its support for militant groups. In fact, if the U.S. is frustrated with Pakistan's behavior now, it beggars belief that we'll somehow get more cooperation out of them by teaming up with an arch-enemy. Nor is it clear how this will "contain" Pakistan since the use of militant proxies is almost impossible to stop.

What would potentially solve, or at least mitigate, Pakistan's support for militant groups would be a change in the dynamic between itself and India, and to the extent that greater U.S. ties to India could encourage a rapprochement there it's all for the better. But that's unlikely to happen, given how India views outside interference on the Kashmir issue.

July 18, 2011

Few Americans Think Afghanistan Will Improve

According to a new poll from Rasmussen:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey of Likely Voters shows that just 22% now believe the situation in Afghanistan will get better in the next six months. Thirty-five percent (35%) expect the situation to get worse, while 30% predict it will remain about the same. Thirteen percent (13%) are undecided.

The number of voters expecting the situation to improve hovered around 20% for months until May when it jumped to 27% following bin Laden’s death. Last month, 26% expected the situation to get better.

July 17, 2011

Afghan Lessons from Rambo III


The Washington Post's Pamela Constable looks back through sepia-tinted glasses on 10 years of western involvement in Afghanistan and laments at the loss of the Kabul she once knew:

I can’t find my old house, my old street or the bakery where I used to watch the early-morning ritual of men slapping dough into hot ovens beneath the floor. They’ve all vanished behind a high-security superstructure of barricades and barbed wire, a foreign architecture of war. Elsewhere in the Afghan capital, a parallel construction boom is underway. The slapdash sprawl of nouveau riche development has sprouted modern apartment buildings, glass-plated shopping centers, wedding halls with fairy lights, and gaudy mansions with gold swan faucets and Greco-Roman balustrades, commissioned by wealthy men with many bodyguards and no taxable income.

She concludes that the real tragedy of Afghanistan is how little advantage it has taken of the enormous international goodwill that followed the defeat of the Taliban in 2001:

Showered with far too much aid, clever Afghans have learned to imitate Western jargon, skim project funds and put their relatives on the payroll — while many show little interest in learning the modern skills that would propel their country forward. At its core, this remains a society of tribal values and survival instincts. Goals such as democracy and nationhood come much further down the list.

There's little to take issue with in her analysis. However, one overlooked cause of today's frustration might be the boundless optimism she describes after the fall of the Taliban:

I was privileged to witness that awakening and to experience the exhilaration of a society being given a new chance after a generation of war and ideological whiplash. In those early years, I met Afghan exiles who had given up careers in Germany or Australia to participate in their homeland’s renaissance, and American jurists and agronomists who had come to help rebuild an alien land.
Foreigners were welcome everywhere, and a new generation of Afghans was in a hurry to catch up. In the cities, I met girls who led exercise classes and boys who took computer lessons at dawn. In rural areas, women still hid behind curtains and veils, but schools reopened in tents, and mud-choked irrigation canals were cleaned. In 2004, long lines of villagers proudly flashed their ink-dipped thumbs after voting in the country’s first real democratic election.

The Taliban were a symptom, not a cause, of Afghanistan's troubles. Instead of curing the condition their excision only exposed the deeper fissures of Afghan society.Instilling the belief in Afghans and foreign donor governments that things would change for the better overnight, instead of the reality of trading in one basket of problems for another filled with longer standing issues, is part of what has added to Afghan and donor fatigue.

The war would have been a hard sell to Congress and other NATO governments if they had been told beforehand that it would last over a decade and its end would have little resemblance to a traditional victory. But at least this would have girded governments and their citizens for what was needed to do the job right or allowed them to bow out gracefully before getting stuck in the mire of nation building. But the business of coalition building requires compromise and consensus, which all too often means kicking these questions of commitment down to succeeding administrations.

This is not the first time western expectations have split from reality in Afghanistan.

In 1988, Rambo III hit theaters across the U.S. The movie, the most violent of its day, lionized the pious Mujahideen in their battle against the godless Soviets (see clip here). The film makes much of the Afghan struggle for freedom (another clip here and here), providing a glimpse into the popular opinion of the day.

However, only a year after the movie's release the U.S. disengaged with Afghanistan. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the problem seemed solved to western eyes. The much-vaunted Mujahideen, re-labeled warlords, were left to fight among themselves and would eventually spawn the Taliban.

In the closing credits to Rambo III the film is dedicated to "the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan." After the attacks of 9/11 this was changed to "the gallant people of Afghanistan."

As the U.S. declares a marginal victory and begins extracting itself from Afghanistan once again, it is worth remembering that expectations ought to be managed and that pedestals are inherently unstable.


July 12, 2011

Osama bin Laden's DNA

The Guardian has an interesting piece on the hunt for Osama:

The CIA organised a fake vaccination programme in the town where it believed Osama bin Laden was hiding in an elaborate attempt to obtain DNA from the fugitive al-Qaida leader's family, a Guardian investigation has found.

As part of extensive preparations for the raid that killed Bin Laden in May, CIA agents recruited a senior Pakistani doctor to organise the vaccine drive in Abbottabad, even starting the "project" in a poorer part of town to make it look more authentic, according to Pakistani and US officials and local residents.

The doctor, Shakil Afridi, has since been arrested by the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) for co-operating with American intelligence agents.

As difficult as an operation such as this undoubtedly was, it seems easier than the efforts to transform the Karzai government into a less-corrupt steward of America's interests.

July 11, 2011

The Taliban's Momentum


The Obama administration contends that the Afghanistan surge has blunted the Taliban's momentum. Spencer Ackerman notes that Taliban attacks have actually increased:

According to military statistics acquired by Danger Room, attacks initiated by insurgents from May 1 to June 30 rose 2 percent from that same period in 2010. That’s the dawn of the so-called “spring fighting season,” when the Taliban typically fight the hardest. And it seemingly contradicts Petraeus’ assertion to the New York Times this morning that “insurgent attack numbers are lower” for the first time since 2006....

Can the insurgency’s momentum be reversed with fewer U.S. troops? Heading to Afghanistan on Saturday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta urged the military to keep “maximum pressure on the Taliban” in order to convince insurgents to sue for peace. The reigning theory is that the Taliban won’t talk seriously until they take a beating. Peace talks are the only political strategy on hand to end the war, but the numbers hardly give a reason to believe the Taliban should feel cowed.

And if al-Qaida is all but iced, as Panetta argues, then it may not be so important that the Taliban’s momentum has merely stalled, since the U.S. only cares about the Taliban insofar as it aids al-Qaida. But would Obama have endorsed the surge if he knew that the most it would accomplish after 18 months is a two percent increase in insurgent attacks?

Even if the Taliban is considerably weaker now than it was 18 months ago, it doesn't bode well for the long-term security of Afghanistan that they can mount more operations despite the full court press from the U.S. and its coalition partners. The Obama administration needs something akin to the Anbar Awakening among the Pashtuns to really drive down violence - and that doesn't seem to be happening. Quite the contrary, as M K Bhadrakumar writes, the "serpent of Pashtun nationalism" has reared its head and is attacking both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Still, a regional solution might be possible. As Bhadrakumar suggests, India and Pakistan are moving slowly toward reconcilable positions on the future of Afghanistan. Faster, please.

(AP Photo)

July 1, 2011

Vietnam Redux

Gideon Rachman sees echoes of the Vietnam end game in Afghanistan:

I don’t know whose bright idea it was to schedule peace talks with the Taliban in Munich. But somebody with a sense of history might have avoided that location. Ever since Chamberlain and Daladier signed over the Sudetenland to Hitler there in 1938, the phrase “Munich agreement” has had an unfortunate ring to it.

That said, the talks with the Taliban remind me more of Kissinger’s protracted negotiations with North Vietnam in the 1970s. In both cases, the fighting was taking place alongside the negotiating. In both cases, the Americans were trying desperately to get out of a protracted conflict that they had concluded could not be won on the battlefield. In both cases they were destabilising the region by bombing enemy safe-havens in a third country – Cambodia then, Pakistan now.

Amazing that Washington has found itself in similar (although not identical) circumstances.

June 30, 2011

Obama's Afghan Dishonesty


Peter Beinart dings President Obama for failing to level with the American people about the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan:

Even if we stayed for 20 years, building a government that can stand on its own might be beyond our capacity. We’d go broke trying, and there is little reason to believe the future of this Afghan government is vital to U.S. security. Barack Obama didn’t even say so in his speech.

But Obama did imply that his administration’s surge has so weakened the Taliban that they’ll trade their weapons for negotiations and eventually join the current government, thus allowing the U.S. to leave an Afghanistan headed towards peace. That’s what Mr. Amini was disputing. There’s an honest way to advocate for withdrawal from Afghanistan and a dishonest way. The dishonest way is to suggest that we’ll leave behind a government that can secure the country and a political process than can end the war. The honest way is to acknowledge that the Afghanistan we leave behind will be a chaotic, ugly place where the Taliban rules large swaths of the country, and much of what we have built may be washed away.

That's a winning message to take into 2012, isn't it?

But seriously, spinning the U.S. withdrawal doesn't make a lot of sense. I suspect most Americans understand that the U.S. will leave Afghanistan much as we found it - at war with itself.

(AP Photo)

June 29, 2011

Americans Support Obama's Afghan Pullout


According to a new Gallup poll:

Americans broadly support President Barack Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year, with additional troops scheduled to leave by the end of next summer and the remainder by 2014. Nearly three-quarters, 72%, are in favor, while 23% are opposed.

The vast majority of Democrats and independents, as well as half of Republicans, favor the outlines of Obama's plan, according to the June 25-26 Gallup poll.

The same poll finds a more mixed reaction to the near-term goal of having 30,000 U.S. troops out of Afghanistan in 15 months. Forty-three percent of Americans consider this number about right, 29% call it too low, and 19% too high.ort President Barack Obama's plan to begin withdrawing U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year, with additional troops scheduled to leave by the end of next summer and the remainder by 2014. Nearly three-quarters, 72%, are in favor, while 23% are opposed.

June 28, 2011

The Costs of Afghanistan

Robert Kagan argues that continuing to nation build inside Afghanistan is actually a bargain:

Failure in Afghanistan will cost much, much more than the billions spent on this surge. What was the cost to the U.S. economy of the attacks on 9/11? What will be the cost if the terrorist groups now operating in Afghanistan—the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e Taiba, as well as al Qaeda—are able to reconstitute safe havens and the next president has to send troops back in to clear them out again? It is a peculiar kind of wisdom that can only see the problems and costs of today and cannot imagine the problems and costs of tomorrow.

This is a particularly interesting line of argument and one that I think undermines Kagan's case for the surge. First - the benchmark is not the costs of 9/11, since there is nothing we're doing inside Afghanistan that will prevent another mass-casualty terrorist attack inside the United States. There are multiple countries that play host to al-Qaeda cells and there is even the possibility of a small number of U.S. citizens banding together to commit some atrocity. Even a large-scale withdrawal from Afghanistan would not be so comprehensive as to leave the U.S. with no means of collecting intelligence or targeting terrorist camps. It is difficult - though not impossible - to imagine a scenario whereby al-Qaeda is able to get itself reconfigured in Afghanistan to the point where they can launch a sophisticated mass-casualty terrorist attack against the continental United States. They have been trying to do so from within Pakistan to no avail and it is far easier to travel from Pakistan to the UK and then from the UK to the U.S. than to travel from Afghanistan into the West.

Still, it's happened once so let's assume for the sake of argument that it does indeed happen again. What would it cost the U.S.? There's no fixed number for the "costs of 9/11" as such, but there are estimates of the economic toll the attacks wrought. The estimated economic cost of 9/11 was in the neighborhood of $40 billion in insured losses and $28 billion in property damage. Other estimates range from $50 - $100 billion in economic costs of the attacks themselves. A World Bank study estimated a $90 billion drop in national income. Finally, a study (pdf) by the Congressional Research Service concluded "that 9/11 is more appropriately viewed as a human tragedy than as an economic calamity. Notwithstanding their dire costs in human life, the direct effects of the attacks were too small and too geographically concentrated to make a significant dent in the nation’s economic output."

This doesn't capture all of the economic costs of 9/11, since it led to the creation of new bureaucracies and the war in Afghanistan. And it obviously ignores the devastating human toll, which must be a vital part of any cost/benefit analysis. Still, I think those are serviceable numbers. So at the high-end, the 9/11 attacks cost the U.S. $100 billion. For the fiscal year 2010, the U.S. spent $105 billion in Afghanistan. This year, the figure is expected to be $108 billion. This spending also doesn't capture the human costs nor the costs of long-term care for the wounded who return home unable to work and in need of care. Nevertheless, it seems that it's costing the U.S. far more to conduct a counter-insurgency inside Afghanistan than the economic damage wrought by 9/11.

But Kagan does helpfully elucidate the central argument: the war in Afghanistan is about keeping the U.S. homeland safe from terrorist attacks. Keeping the Taliban from ruling parts of Afghanistan is a means to that end - not the end itself. Properly framed, there are obviously "less expensive" ways of keeping al-Qaeda from attacking the United States.

It's also worth stating that the prospect that anyone will die from terrorism is vanishingly small:

Just to give you some context here, one of my friends, an astronomer, has calculated the worldwide chance of anyone being killed by international terrorism outside of war zones over an 80-year lifetime, assuming, incidentally, that every several years there is another 9/11. It comes out to be 1 in 80,000. Since he is an astronomer, he has also calculated the chance of being killed by a comet or asteroid over a lifetime of 80 years, and it comes out to be about the same.

June 27, 2011

Kabul’s Car Market Gets Pimped Out

Just over a month ago, an irresistible slice-of-life story jumped the divide between Afghan and western media.

National Public Radio was the first to report on the trend story of Afghan aversion to the number 39:

It’s hard to find a credible story to explain what exactly it means, but everyone knows it’s bad. Many Afghans say that the number 39 translates into morda-gow, which literally means “dead cow” but is also a well-known slang term for a procurer of prostitutes — a pimp.

In Afghanistan, being called a pimp is offensive, and calling someone a pimp could carry deadly consequences. Similarly, being associated with the number 39 — whether it’s on a vehicle license plate, an apartment number or a post office box — is considered a great shame. And some people will go to great lengths to avoid it.

Three weeks later the Wall Street Journal weighed in on the conspiracy theories swirling around the growing taboo:

One rather credible conspiracy theory contends that the entire 39 mania has been inflamed by underhanded Kabul car dealers.

Kabul car dealer Mahfuzullah Khairkhwa, who has 39 on his own license plate, admitted that, at the very least, he takes advantage of the curse to turn an easy profit.

“The problem is only in Kabul,” said Mr. Khairkhwa, who conceded that he could knock several thousand dollars off the purchase price of a car in Kabul with 39 on its plate and then turn around to sell it for a profit in the surrounding provinces, where the urban legend has yet to spread.

The head of the union of car dealers in Kabul offered a retort in a Reuters piece this month:

Najibullah Amiri, blames corrupt police officers for fanning the trend.

The issue has gained prominence just as number plates for Afghan cars — which carry five digits — rolled over from the series that starts with 38, to a new series that starts with 39.

Amiri said officials at the police traffic department charge buyers between $200 and $500 to change a “39″ number plate for a new car to something less offensive.

This is not the first salacious episode involving Kabul’s automotive fleet. As the “39″ story was breaking, drivers were urgently removing rainbow decals that had begun arriving stuck onto imported cars and became fashionable until conservative Afghans learned they were also gay pride symbols.

Rainbow stickers can be peeled off but Kabul’s problem with pimp-mobiles has, overnight, thrown the city’s booming car sales industry into chaos. Dealers are reporting that “thousands of dollars of stock is now sitting unwanted in their yards, with even a prime condition vehicle almost unsaleable if its plates bear the now-hated numerals.”

To read the rest of this article, visit, where it was originally published.

Why America Won, Then Lost, the Afghan War


I was travelling during President Obama's Afghan speech and after reading and abosrbing the commentary surrounding it, I think it's clear that President Obama was faced with an impossible rhetorical task - he had to explain to the United States that it won, then lost, the Afghan war.

The problem that has plagued the Afghan war from the start has been Washington's inability to define a narrow, achievable objective. Since January 2002, the U.S. squandered a quick and limited victory against the Taliban and al-Qaeda by larding on additional objectives involving the political structure of the Afghan state. The basic idea was noble enough - the U.S. would help rebuild an Afghanistan that could forge a terror-free, post-Taliban era.

Unfortunately, the move from a limited goal of destroying al-Qaeda's safe haven and killing those responsible for 9/11 to the more ambitious goal of creating a post-Taliban Afghanistan was well beyond anything the U.S. had the capabilities, resources or will to achieve. It was a goal at odds with how bin Laden's global terror network had evolved since losing its Afghan safe haven. It was also premised on the debatable proposition that regular Afghans would staff a national army tasked with fighting and dying to advance American policy priorities.

The Obama administration has paid lip service to this reality, publicly ratcheting down U.S. goals, but rather than adjust tactics it simply doubled down on the original proposition that Afghanistan could be rebuilt (i.e. "stabilized") to the point that the U.S. could leave the place relatively in tact before departing.

After listening to the president's speech, I believe Obama wants to appear committed to unwinding the U.S. nation building effort, but he is still bound by an orthodoxy that insists that the U.S. can build an Afghan state that's to its liking. It's an understandable, even commendable, impulse. It is also a counter-productive one.

(AP Photo)

June 24, 2011

The Duke Of Wellington’s Take on the Afghan War


Whilst marching from Portugal to a position which commands the approach to Madrid and the French forces, my officers have been diligently complying with your requests which have been sent by His Majesty’s ship from London to Lisbon and thence by dispatch to our headquarters.

We have enumerated our saddles, bridles, tents and tent poles, and all manner of sundry items for which His Majesty’s Government holds me accountable. I have dispatched reports on the character, wit and spleen of every officer. Each item and every farthing has been accounted for with two regrettable exceptions for which I beg your indulgence.

Unfortunately the sum of one shilling and ninepence remains unaccounted for in one infantry battalion’s petty cash and there has been a hideous confusion as to the number of jars of raspberry jam issued to one cavalry regiment during a sandstorm in western Spain. This reprehensible carelessness may be related to the pressure of circumstance, since we are at war with France, a fact which may come as a bit of a surprise to you gentlemen in Whitehall.

This brings me to my present purpose, which is to request elucidation of my instruction from His Majesty’s Government so that I may better understand why I am dragging an army over these barren plains. I construe that perforce it must be one of two alternative duties, as given below. I shall pursue either with the best of my ability, but I cannot do both:

1. To train an army of uniformed British clerks in Spain for the benefit of the
accountants and copy-boys in London or, perchance…
2. To see to it the forces of Napoleon are driven out of Spain

Your most obedient servant,


The above letter - dated August 11th, 1812, and addressed to the British Foreign office in London - is attributed to the Duke of Wellington who, at the time, was waging his Peninsular Campaign. The war for the Iberian Peninsula, which would thrust the general to prominence, marked an early example of modern warfare. For it was on the Spanish plains that pitched battles between standing armies of professional soldiers gave way to the spontaneous emergence of large-scale guerrilla warfare (the term guerrilla, being the diminutive of guerra, Spanish for “war” or quite literally “little war”). The British press quickly seized on the novel uprising: for the first time, peoples, not princes, were in rebellion against the “Great Disturber.”

To read the rest of this article, visit, where it was originally published.

Jon Huntsman's Foreign Policy


In a 2012 Republican presidential field with relatively little foreign policy heft, Jon Huntsman has it in spades. The former ambassador and oft-traveled billionaire, heir to a massive chemical conglomerate fortune, is one of the most globally minded candidates in a field of otherwise parochial, or even isolationist, figures within the party.

Talking to his associates from his time in China, one hears near-universal respect for the man and his views of America's role within the world - even to the point of turning his time away from the states in China into a potential political asset, an instance of confronting communists with a case for freedom. They'll tell you Huntsman truly does view his role as one of duty and service to the nation - even to the point of setting aside his Mormon religious views on drinking alcohol to drink the disgusting baijiu liquor which is mandatory at Chinese events (I'm told Huntsman would drink the clear alcohol once and then switch to water, hoping no one noticed after the first round). Huntsman's tenure as ambassador was marked by only one significant public gaffe, a bizarre incident where he attended, then fled, from a Jasmine Revolution protest, attracting attention for the large American flag patch on his arm (he claims he stumbled across the protest by accident).

Yet for someone whose campaign has already adopted a view prioritizing global issues, and whose announcement in front of the statue of liberty this week was purposefully constructed to spark recollections of Ronald Reagan's run against Jimmy Carter, Huntsman's publicly-expressed foreign policy views seem to have more in common with Carter than with Reagan.

Without question, Huntsman is the furthest left of any purportedly serious candidate for the nomination when it comes to forming a response to Afghanistan. His press release on the president's remarks this week emphasized his approval for "a safe but rapid withdrawal," but his critique on NBC's Today show went much further. Asked by host Ann Curry whether he thought a drawdown of 30,000 troops by next year was too much or too rapid, Huntsman responded by saying that "I think that we can probably be more aggressive over the next year" in drawing down troops.

Despite the comparisons to John McCain's 2008 presidential run - and on the campaign and organizational side, there are many - Huntsman's statement could not be more at odds with McCain's views on Afghanistan and the necessity of preventing losses of the gains made in the past two years. Like Obama, Huntsman emphasized the need for “nation building at home” (as if the two goals are inconsistent) - but Huntsman went further, saying it was time to "get serious about what needs to be done on the ground, not a counter-insurgency but a counter-terror effort." While nearly every Republican in the race has emphasized the need to heed the advice of the commanders with on-the-ground experience on the front, Huntsman is purposefully setting himself apart in unequivocally rejecting the advice of Gen. David Petraeus and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, from afar. More significantly, in supporting a more aggressive drawdown to be replaced by a limited counter-terror strategy, Huntsman is essentially endorsing the view by Vice President Joe Biden - a view which proved too rapid and risky even for President Obama.

Whether you agree with them or not, even supporters must concede that Huntsman's foreign policy views are a clear rejection not just of George W. Bush, but of thirty years of the views of Republican nominees on the proper attitude toward war fighting and engagement. One does not have to accept the view of Washington's neoconservative elite in order to take a view of America's role in the world that has been consistent in the Republican Party since the post-Nixon era. And Huntsman's foreign policy team - which includes former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, CFR head Richard Haass and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the leaker of Valerie Plame's identity - has already sparked concern among Jewish groups that Huntsman's views on America's relationship with Israel could be as out of sync with Republican values as the rest of his portfolio.

Rather than playing games of triangulation, Huntsman may simply be saying what he believes. But perhaps the reason he's caught fire with so many leading media figures is that he's saying things they tend to agree with. This is all well and good, and coherent so far as it goes. It's just not very Republican.

(AP Photo)

June 23, 2011

Obama's Political Calculation on Afghanistan

There was little surprising about President Obama's announcement last night that he will withdraw 10,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2011, increasing to the full level of his 33,000-troop surge by the end of next summer. But there are a number of questions sparked by his remarks; questions we won't know the answers to for some time, raising concerns about the long-term results of this decision.

Despite the intonations of some commentators about its catastrophic consequences - Jen Rubin at the Washington Post called it "the most irresponsible speech ever given in wartime by a U.S. president," while Dana Milbank is calling it Obama's "Mission Accomplished" moment - this actually can be measured as a slight win for those forces within the administration who argued for a slower drawdown than was politically preferable. It certainly was not a victory Senate Armed Service Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, who wanted 50 percent more, or for Vice President Joe Biden, who reportedly wanted forces withdrawn by the beginning of next summer.

The real test of how much of a victory it is for the commanders likely depends on how much leeway the White House gives them on which 10,000 personnel come home - support battalions, or warfighters. Yet while most commentators are focused on the number, it is the timing of this withdrawal's second phase that should concern people more than the number. As the New York Times notes this morning, "the most significant effect of President Obama’s latest orders will be felt at this time next year, when as many as 23,000 American troops who would have been on missions at the peak of the summer fighting season will instead be packing for home."

And while I typically reject William Kristol's views on foreign policy, he seems right on this score: This is a timing decision made with the 2012 election primarily in mind, not the security picture or in anticipation of changing facts on the ground.

Triangulating works as domestic politics for a reason: Your metric for judging the outcome is making a decision placed between two poles that appeals to the largest portion of the electorate. This is less wise when it comes to strategic decision-making, particularly considering the potential consequences of this decision not just for Afghanistan or for American security, but for the nearly 70,000 U.S. troops who will remain in Afghanistan after this drawdown is complete.

It's hard to shake the feeling that Obama may come to regret deploying this approach to his decision-making process at some point in the future. But as Kori Schake noted prior to the remarks last night: "It's the president's choice. That's what he gets elected for."

And the consequences, for good or ill, could come to define his presidency. Let's hope he's right.

Counting Blood and Treasure

Last night U.S. President Barak Obama announced the beginning of the end of his Afghan surge. Ten thousand U.S. troops will be home by the end of the year, with the remaining 20,000 surge troops returning stateside by next summer. That will leave approximately 70,000 to focus on Afghanistan’s restive borders to the south and east. Some of those will trickle back by 2014, when full security of the country is to be handed over to Afghan forces. Others are likely to be stationed at semi-permanent bases across the country into the near future.

The drawdown is seen as deeper and faster than anticipated by the Pentagon and, rather than signaling overwhelming success, reflects the heightened fiscal pressures that have descended on Washington along with the uncertainties surrounding the broad nation-building mission in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death.

To read the rest of this article, visit, where it was originally published.

June 22, 2011

At War With Afghanistan

As President Obama prepares to tell us how many troops he will withdraw from Afghanistan, it's worth pointing out that the U.S. was never supposed to a launch a war against Afghanistan. It was supposed to be against several hundred Arabs and a hodge-podge of other nationalities who had taken up shop in Afghanistan to plot terrorist attacks, plus a slice of the Afghan population that thought sheltering them was a good idea. When the Bush administration largely accomplished that in early 2002, it decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by turning the war into a quest to give Afghanistan something it had not had in decades: a stable government.

This was a classic example of moving the goal posts, and it has been costly.

June 16, 2011

Burying the Lede in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s second vice President, Karim Khalili, the Minister of Interior, Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, MoI leadership, NTM-A Deputy Commanding General and EUPOL and German Police Project Team officials gathered for the ribbon cutting ceremony of Afghanistan’s largest premier police training facility.

So began a press release from the NATO Training Mission - Afghanistan (NTM-A). The article describes the modern training facilities that will house 3,000 cadets once construction is completed. The U.S.-funded, $106 million dollar facility has an impressive "23 barracks, eight classrooms, 23 guard towers, three dining facilities, three headquarters and administration buildings, gym, auditorium, medical facility, fire station and international trainers compound."

That fire station must have come in handy during yesterday's ribbon cutting ceremony, for, you see, the NATO public affairs officers missed a more gripping intro to their report.

Buried deep in the story was this apparent throwaway graf:

As the ceremony was concluding, a rocket impacted in the training center. There were no injuries or fatalities during the attack and dignitaries were able to safely depart the site. Wardak province has a history of sporadic rocket attacks that are the ongoing focus of Afghan and NATO forces in that area.

The Associated Press framed the incident differently:

The round crashed down and exploded within the grounds of the facility during its inauguration Wednesday, sending panicked police recruits crawling across the floor of a meeting hall and prompting bodyguards to bundle one of Afghanistan's vice presidents and the government minister in charge of police forces into helicopters and flee.

Spin is one thing but when self-congratulatory ribbon cuttings are deemed more news worthy than rocket attacks on senior Afghan politicians and NATO officials, a firm grounding in reality has somehow slipped away, if not in Afghanistan as a whole then at least in NATO's public affairs department.


June 15, 2011

Balkanizing Afghanistan


In the coming weeks, President Barak Obama will announce exactly what shape the termination of his Afghan surge will take. In light of this, and in the aftermath of bin Laden's death, pundits have been falling over themselves to voice just what all this means for the future of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Gates has called for a gradual withdrawal while Democrats in Congress are eager for a more hasty departure. The White House itself has said that the July drawdown will be "real" and the final decision will be based on "conditions on the ground" lining up with the president's stated objectives of defeating al-Qaeda and stabilizing Afghanistan, according to

Part of the calculus behind any drawdown schedule will be the progress of peace negotiations with the Taliban. Yesterday, The Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper affiliated with The International Tribune, ran a story alleging that, according to an unnamed source, the United States had made direct contact with Taliban leader Mullah Omar via an intermediary, a former Taliban spokesman known as Mohammad Hanif who was arrested by U.S. forces in 2007.

Rumors on high-level secret negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban have been swirling around Kabul for at least a year. Some of this hearsay could be credible, such as talks in Germany, the Persian Gulf and Turkey, while in others instances the U.S. has been outright hoodwinked by Taliban impostors.

According to the Express article, the U.S. had offered the Taliban control over the south of Afghanistan, while leaving the north for the other political forces under American influence. However, this was rejected by the Taliban.

Should this turn out to be true, it would seem the U.S. has taken a page from a recent Foreign Affairs article penned by Robert D. Blackwill, former U.S. ambassador to India and former deputy national security adviser for strategic planning.

In the article Blackwill writes:

Current U.S. policy toward Afghanistan involves spending scores of billions of dollars and suffering several hundred allied deaths annually to prevent the Afghan Taliban from controlling the Afghan Pashtun homeland -- with little end in sight. Those who ask for more time for the existing strategy to succeed often fail to spell out what they think the odds are that it will work in the next few years, what amount of casualties and resources they think the attempt is worth, and why. That calculus suggests that it is time to shift to Plan B....The time has come, therefore, to switch to the least bad alternative -- acceptance of a de facto partition of the country.

Blackwill proposes a long term combat role for as many as 50,000 U.S. troops in the north half of the country, ceding the rest of the country to the Taliban. "...Washington should accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun south and east and that the price of forestalling that outcome is far too high for the United States to continue paying," argues Blackwill. The former ambassador's proposal amounts to a decade of nation-building in the north and counterterrorism in the south.

If the U.S. is indeed offering to barter half of Afghanistan for a peace treaty, perhaps the Obama administration has reluctantly arrived at the same conclusion as Blackwill: "Accepting a de facto partition of Afghanistan has enough downsides that choosing it makes sense only if the other options available are even worse. They are."


(AP Photo)

June 13, 2011

Kabul Hustle

Kabul is a hustle. But with a little scratch, a little nerve, a little luck and, yes, perhaps a little graft, all things are possible.

The economy grew by a blistering 22.5 percent last year, agriculture alone by 53 percent thanks to ample wet weather. The service sector bounded by double digits and mining, the purported panacea the country’s been longing for, jumped by a third.

Security, however, is at its worst since 2001, Afghanistan continues to provide 90 percent of the world’s heroin, the country ranks as second most corrupt and relies more heavily on foreign aid than any other.

It’s in front of such a backdrop that everyday Afghans have been eking out an existence through the nearly 10-year war.

A recent Guardian article illustrates how this drama is playing out in the capital of Kabul:

The 10-year international effort has seen Kabul change from being a moribund city of fewer than 400,000 to a bustling metropolis of 4.5 million flush with cash. The last two years have seen an explosion in conspicuous consumption. There are blocks of luxury apartments under construction, giant video hoardings advertising energy drinks, BMWs and Hummers blasting their way through the traffic with overpowered horns. Miralam Hosseini, 56, sells at least two $140,000 4x4s every week. Across the street from his showroom, an electronics shops stocks the latest 52in flat screen.
To read the rest of this article, visit, where it was originally published.

June 9, 2011

Debating Afghanistan


Danielle Pletka makes the case for victory in Afghanistan:

The choices for America in Afghanistan are simpler than they appear in the fog of political debate: We can win or we can lose. Definitions can be debated, but in short, victory will mean that Afghanistan will not be a sustainable operational haven for al Qaeda, its political and terrorist affiliates, or a base for aggression against the U.S. and its allies.

Unfortunately, al-Qaeda does not current enjoy an "operational haven" in Afghanistan - it has one in Pakistan. So we've already won!

Indeed, the idea that we need to wage a massive counter-insurgency to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven begs a number of obvious questions - what about the other countries that either are, or could become, "operational" safe havens for al-Qaeda? Do they get 100,000-plus NATO forces? And what is an "operational" safe haven, anyway? Is there a threshold number of al-Qaeda fighters whereby a U.S. invasion and occupation becomes necessary? (The 9/11 attacks were plotted in, among other places, Hamburg, Germany.)

More fundamentally - how do we know when Afghanistan ceases to be a threat to U.S. security? Most of the recent terrorist plots that have been unearthed have originated in either Pakistan or Yemen. Isn't that significant? Is there any realistic time-frame when the country could not "potentially" be a safe haven? If we couldn't achieve this in 10 years, how much more time do we need?

(AP Photo)

June 8, 2011

The Costs of Afghan Nation Building


To take the issue of the "affordability" of Afghanistan a bit further, a new Congressional report highlights the costs:

One example cited in the report is the Performance-Based Governors Fund, which is authorized to distribute up to $100,000 a month in U.S. funds to individual provincial leaders for use on local expenses and development projects. In some provinces, it says, “this amount represents a tidal wave of funding” that local officials are incapable of “spending wisely.”

Because oversight is scanty, the report says, the fund encourages corruption. Although the U.S. plan is for the Afghan government to eventually take over this and other programs, it has neither the management capacity nor the funds to do so.

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The U.S. could "sustain" this indefinitely, but why would it want to?

(AP Photo)

June 7, 2011

Paying for the Afghan War

What the White House is attempting to do is paint... [nation building] as profligate, contrasting it to the cost-effectiveness of a narrower counter-terror approach. They ought to ask themselves why none of our military leadership is supporting the approach.

This feels like one more example of President Obama leading from behind. He has made little effort to build public support for the war -- he didn't even make a statement on the House debate over withdrawing from Afghanistan. By floating a cost-based objection to his own strategy, the president sets himself up to "respond to pressure" and constrain our effort in Afghanistan. This is terrible leadership on a crucial national security issue.

Responsible people can advocate different approaches to defending ourselves against the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. They can also advocate further cuts to defense spending. But it is dangerous to argue the cost of prosecuting a war that, while high, is marginal to our expenditures and by no means the driver of our debt, cannot be afforded. - Kori Schake

I think Shake is correct here - the U.S. can "afford" to continue nation building in Afghanistan through 2014 (or beyond). The more important question she eludes to, however, is: is it worth it? Just because the U.S. can afford a certain policy doesn't mean it's the best option. If the Obama administration concludes that nation building in Afghanistan is not worth it (no matter how "affordable" it is) then it needs to make the case directly.

Politics in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is, at a very fundamental level, political. The dispute growing between the High Peace Council and the National Movement is, at a very fundamental level, political. I’ve been harping on this for years, that many of the biggest problems we face in Afghanistan are neither military nor economic in nature, but political. The U.S. has never had real challenges on the battlefield—the Army and Marines are terrifyingly good at “clearing” areas. But the politics of what to do with those cleared areas has always mystified NATO and ISAF.

The Washington Post recently reported that the Marines have spent nearly $1.3 billion in the last 18 months in Marjeh, and there remains no political structure to assist with governance. Even in supposedly successful places like Nawa, also in Helmand, the Marines have shown a marked inability to understand and affect the political context of the areas they control—and they have been substantially more successful than the Army in doing this! But they’re stuck in a stilted mode of thinking that, once the guys with guns sweep through, they can lavish money upon an area and declare it successful.

This is not a war the Taliban are winning: from a political perspective they’re barely more functional than the Afghan government is. It is a war we are losing—by ignoring the politics of Afghanistan, of the basic political question driving the war (e.g. what will be the ultimate political system of Afghanistan), and the politics preventing Afghans and Taliban from sitting down to negotiate, we are sowing the seeds of failure. - Joshua Foust

This sounds right to me. And let's be fair - it may not be possible for the U.S. to finesse the politics of Afghanistan to get the outcome Washington desires even if (a huge if) we properly understood these politics and the levers we'd need to move them in our direction. A "political" solution is contingent on a lot of factors, some of which may not be amenable to American bombs and/or bribes. The present course suggests the U.S. is simply trying to save face in Afghanistan - delivering enough of a blow to the Taliban that they will be weak enough for the Afghan National Army to hold them at bay when the U.S. departs in 2014.

There are, though, problems with that approach. Specifically, the Afghan National Army and police:

Lt. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the American in charge of the NATO effort to train Afghan forces, said Monday that although NATO was on track to reach its goal of training 305,000 army and police forces by October, attrition remained a significant problem. Those forces currently total 296,000.

General Caldwell said that about 30 percent of Afghan soldiers leave the Army every year before their terms of service are up, particularly in areas of heavy combat where they are needed most. In addition, he said that only one in 10 recruits can read and write, meaning NATO must first provide literacy training so that soldiers are able to write their names and read serial numbers on their weapons. So far, he said, NATO has trained 90,000 men in basic literacy.

The Taliban, by contrast, do not have the world's most powerful military alliance training them in military techniques and literacy and equipping them. And yet, with 296,000 men under arms we're still not confident that these Afghan troops can keep the Taliban insurgency at bay. Pretty astounding, isn't it?

June 6, 2011

Should the U.S. Be Judicious With Drone Strikes?


When it comes to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan that, according to one Obama official, is the question:

U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, backed by top military officers and other State Department officials, wants the strikes to be more judicious, and argues that Pakistan's views need to be given greater weight if the fight against militancy is to succeed, said current and former U.S. officials.

Defenders of the current drone program take umbrage at the suggestion that the program isn't judicious. "In this context, the phrase 'more judicious' is really code for 'let's appease Pakistani sensitivities,' " said a U.S. official. The CIA has already given Pakistani concerns greater weight in targeting decisions in recent months, the official added. Advocates of sustained strikes also argue that the current rift with the Pakistanis isn't going to be fixed by scaling back the program.

Given the secrecy of the program, it's difficult to tell what kind of targets the CIA is hitting. I take the term "judicious" to mean that drone killings are reserved for "high level" al-Qaeda operatives (like Illyas Kashmiri). Individuals who are typically foreign fighters or clearly linked to acts of terrorism directed against the United States. Given the number and tempo of drone strikes conducted over the past two years, it's clear the CIA is targeting a much wider array of individuals than that. Indeed, it may be more appropriate to view the drone program not so much as a tool to assassinate terrorists in hard-to-reach places but as an extension of the counter-insurgency in Afghanistan: CIA drones can hit militant targets related to the Afghan war that NATO, for political and diplomatic reasons, cannot.

If that is indeed the case, then the drone program is quite analogous to the war in Afghanistan. What started as a limited campaign to target those who would kill Americans has been transformed into a wider and murkier conflict against second-order enemies who are primarily being killed because they are attacking the U.S. presence in the region.

(AP Photo)

June 5, 2011

He Said, She Said


Sarah Palin dipped into the Afghan fray on Tuesday, posting a Facebook comment in response to President Karzai’s NATO ultimatum on civilian casualties after at least nine civilians were killed in their home in Helmand province:

What President Karzai is saying is that if we don’t severely limit our air campaign he will take “unilateral action.” And he further says that if the airstrikes continue we will be seen as an “occupying” power. This is an indirect way of saying that American and NATO forces will be fair game, which is obviously an unacceptable situation that threatens our troops…Let us be clear: we are in Afghanistan fighting for the Afghan people and for the security of our country and our allies. If President Karzai continues with these public ultimatums, we must consider our options about the immediate future of U.S. troops in his country. If he actually follows through on his claim that Afghan forces will take “unilateral action” against NATO forces who conduct such air raids to take out terrorists and terrorist positions, that should result in the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the suspension of U.S. aid.

The public statements of politicians are made to serve myriad audiences and their rhetoric should not be taken literally. Karzai is attempting to crest the wave of war fatigue and anti-foreigner sentiment rising through Afghanistan. Palin is trying to prove that the view from her Alaskan home extends beyond Russia, right into the heart of Asia. At most, their comments demarcate the extreme positions of the much more nuanced debate taking place behind closed doors and between cooler heads. At the very least they should be dismissed as posturing and brinkmanship.

However, the former governor gets a few things wrong. At no point did Karzai make the threat that “Afghan forces will take ‘unilateral action’ against NATO forces.” It’s his government that will take action, militarily, diplomatically or by other political means. And, in the wake of bin Laden’s death, Palin’s labeling of the Taliban as terrorists is subject to some debate.

Karzai, currently the only one of the two who is an elected official and representing a presidency, must be held to a higher standard of accountability than a private citizen on a non-campaign family bus tour. But with millions of “friends” comes great responsibility. The cyber-phenom that is Sarah Palin has so far stirred almost 4,000 responses to her Afghanistan Facebook post; likely far more than Karzai could ever hope to elicit, and dwarfing a lifetime of responses for this humble blogger.


(AP Photo)

May 24, 2011

China's Pakistan Base

The news yesterday that China may build a naval base in Pakistan has raised some eyebrows. Gideon Rachman observes:

The story has come out of Pakistan, following the visit of the Pakistani prime minister to China last week. It may simply reflect Pakistani fury with the US, following the Bin Laden killing – rather than any genuine Chinese decision to go for an overseas naval base. Some western policymakers reckon that the Chinese will actually be wincing at the appearance of this story in the western press, since it will heighten the perception that China is overplaying its hand in the Pacific – an idea that has helped America to strengthen its military alliances across the region.

I don't think it's a Pakistan snub to the U.S., after all there are good strategic reasons for Pakistan and China to partner. And, as Rediff reports, they have been steadily expanding ties for some time:

A free trade area is in place from 2006, raw materials exploitation is in full swing in different parts of Pakistan, while China is building (often without international competitive bidding) infrastructure projects such as widening Karakoram highway, railway projects (closer to Abbottabad), port facilities at Gwadar and Karachi, hydro-electric projects in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, etc. Also, Pakistan procured 50 new fighter aircraft from China during Gilani's visit.

China had in the recent past substantially increased military supplies to Pakistan -- including JF-17 fighters, four frigates, six submarines, early warning aircraft and other ground forces equipment. More such projects are committed during this visit. Some Chinese retired naval officers and others have also demanded recently that China should set up military "facilities" in Pakistan. After the Chinese assistance to the Chashma III and IV nuclear power plants were cleared by the International Atomic Energy Agency in March this year (as a counter to the US-India 123 agreement), and as moves towards the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty are being made, the recent news about substantial increases in Pakistan's capability to produce nuclear warheads, is not surprising.

May 11, 2011

Bin Laden and Nuclear Deterrence

By Elbridge Colby

The eminently gratifying and important killing of Osama bin Ladin is raising a host of questions – about the future of our counterterrorism policy, our relations with Pakistan, the revolutions in the Middle East, etc. One aspect that hasn’t been emphasized as much is that the United States just conducted a kinetic military operation within the confines of a nuclear-armed sovereign nation without its consent. Indeed, reports indicate that the Pakistanis scrambled interceptors once they picked up signs of the U.S. helicopters.

This is interesting because it is further demonstration that there are limits to how expansively nuclear weapons deter. Even if a country, like Pakistan, has a well-established and pretty formidable nuclear weapons capability, another nation has shown itself to be willing and able to penetrate its airspace, insert soldiers onto the ground, conduct military operations and kill targeted individuals – all without Islamabad’s consent. That’s striking because many argue that nuclear weapons possession so radically transforms the way nations behave – irrespective of the posture and nature of the states’ dispute – that possessing states will be protected from any significant military actions, certainly against their home territory. They will, so the argument goes, be so shielded from retort by their nuclear umbrella that they will have leave to get away with almost anything, such as sheltering Osama bin Ladin. There is some amount of truth to this view, of course. Nuclear weapons have enormous deterrent power, and countries will think far more carefully about taking serious action against a nuclear-armed power than against one without means of massively destructive reprisal.

Yet the commendable U.S. decision to go after bin Ladin – in an operation that involved inserting forces right into the middle of a nuclear-armed country and with full knowledge of the possibility that there could be shooting between U.S. and Pakistani forces – shows that nuclear weapons do not provide blanket protection for all manner of evils. Countries that have nuclear weapons can still be confronted and operated against without spurring escalation to nuclear use, particularly when the objective pursued is limited and discriminate, and especially when that objective is connected to a truly vital national interest. Presumably the president’s calculus was that there was almost no conceivable chance that Pakistan would resort to a nuclear response against the United States, which would be perforce irrational given America’s vast retaliatory capability, and that that miniscule probability was outweighed by the great national interest in taking just vengeance on the murderer of almost 3,000 Americans.

This fact should be borne in mind as we consider how to deal with today’s nuclear aspirants – and, perhaps more importantly, should be borne in mind by them. They may, despite our best efforts, succeed in getting nuclear weapons. But this will not give them blank check immunity to harbor the worst terrorists or continually attack South Korea with impunity. If we have the resolve, we can still take discriminate but effective action.

Elbridge Colby served most recently with the Office of the Secretary of Defense on the New START agreement negotiation and ratification effort. Previously, he served as an advisor to the Congressional Strategic Posture Commission and with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed here are his own.

Support for Militants in Pakistan

Erik Voeten surveys some recent research:

The second paper finds that Pakistanis who are more favorable towards liberal democracy are also more favorable towards militant groups. The authors ascribe this finding to widespread beliefs among those who favor democracy that Muslim rights and sovereignty are being violated in Kashmir, although the relationship holds for support for all four militant groups.

I guess that Osama Bin Laden made a wise choice when he chose to hide in a middle class suburb.

He also links to a paper (pdf) that suggests that democratization and economic development "may be irrelevant at best and might even be counterproductive" to reversing support for militancy in Pakistan.

Maybe it's time for Plan B - or is that C?

Targeting Americans

It is immaterial whether or not the Taliban, the Haqqani network, Lashkar-e-Taiba and the others are currently targeting the American homeland. We cannot allow them to create a fundamentalist caliphate stretching from Kabul to Kashmir and beyond. Their takeover of Afghanistan—a first step toward this grandiose goal—would galvanize jihadists and could reverse the loss of momentum they have suffered because of the Arab Spring and bin Laden's death. It would also provide greater impetus to topple the nuclear-armed Pakistan next door. - Max Boot

If it's immaterial that a certain group of people are or aren't targeting the United States, then why aren't we sending troops into Somalia, Yemen, the Palestinian territories and anywhere else a few people pine for a caliphate? (Leaving aside, of course, the rather important question of whether the Haqqani network and LeT have the capability to fulfill such a grandiose vision.)

May 10, 2011

Secret Deals and Pakistan Stability

The US and Pakistan struck a secret deal almost a decade ago permitting a US operation against Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil similar to last week's raid that killed the al-Qaida leader, the Guardian has learned.

The deal was struck between the military leader General Pervez Musharraf and President George Bush after Bin Laden escaped US forces in the mountains of Tora Bora in late 2001, according to serving and retired Pakistani and US officials.

Under its terms, Pakistan would allow US forces to conduct a unilateral raid inside Pakistan in search of Bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the al-Qaida No3. Afterwards, both sides agreed, Pakistan would vociferously protest the incursion. - Declan Walsh

This kind of news is difficult to interpret. It could easily be spin on Pakistan's part - a way to prove they were helping the U.S. even as the furor grows over bin Laden's Abbottabad hideaway.

On the other hand, it could be entirely accurate. And it's easy to see why Pakistan would agree to this kind of deal: their population has a largely negative view of the United States and any country, no matter how well disposed to the U.S., would have a hard time selling military incursions on their territory.

As a practical matter, if the U.S. was presented by Pakistan with this option or nothing, it's probably better than nothing. But this kind of arrangement is really corrosive to U.S.-Pakistani ties and to Pakistan's internal stability. It makes Pakistan's government look weak and duplicitious, which is bad for Pakistan. It also continues to perpetuate anti-Americanism inside Pakistan, which is bad for the U.S.

Should the U.S. Get Tough With Pakistan?


Anatol Lieven has been a persistent voice in warning the U.S. off taking actions that could potentially destabilize Pakistan, which is why his piece in the National Interest arguing for a harder line is noteworthy:

For while it is entirely true that I have argued that Pakistan is more resilient than it looks, and is not yet a failed or failing state, the United States certainly cannot deliberately try to make it one—unless Pakistan has in effect become an open enemy. Even without the apocalyptic threat of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or materials falling into the hands of terrorists, a serious fraying of the Pakistani military would lead to anti-aircraft missiles, trained engineers and immense stores of munitions and equipment going astray. That in itself would raise the terrorist threat to the West by an order of magnitude, and absolutely ensure defeat in Afghanistan. For it must be stressed that—provenly in the case of the Afghan Taliban, probably in the case of al-Qaeda—the Pakistani military has given shelter to our enemies, it has not yet actually armed them.

One thing supporters of indefinite nation building in Afghanistan argue is that we have to stay in the country for the sake of Pakistan and that much of our problems with Pakistan stem from the fact that we left Afghanistan once before and now they don't trust the U.S. to stick around for the long haul. But it seems like the longer we've stayed in Afghanistan, the worse relations have gotten with Pakistan. The U.S. doesn't have many realistic levers over Pakistan's behavior and our go-to source of leverage (money) has only gotten us so far.

As Lieven notes (and as I pointed out earlier), it's one thing to support militant groups whose scope is limited to Afghanistan, since, for better or worse, that is a vital Pakistani interest and not something we can do all that much about. Providing safe harbor for an organization that has a demonstrated capacity to launch attacks directly against the U.S. homeland, however, is another story. Unfortunately, so long as we're invested in building up Afghanistan we are going to have to keep relations with Pakistan on a somewhat even keel, no matter what uncomfortable revelations lie in store.

(AP Photo)

U.S. Views on Afghanistan

Rasmussen finds an increased willingness among likely voters to pull troops out of Afghanistan:

A new Rasmussen Reports nation telephone survey finds that 35% of Likely U.S. Voters now favor the immediate withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the highest level of support to date. Twenty-one percent (21%) more support the establishment of a firm timetable to bring the troops home within a year.

The combined total of 56% is up four points from the beginning of March, up 13 points from 43% last September, and up 19 points from September 2009.

Thirty percent (30%) of voters still oppose the creation of any kind of timetable for withdrawal and 15% remain undecided.

May 9, 2011

Pakistan and Afghanistan


In an article arguing that the U.S. must not withdraw from Afghanistan following bin Laden's death, Frederick and Kim Kagan make a very odd statement:

Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan has once again concentrated the minds of Americans on the fact that Pakistan’s leadership has yet to come to consensus about the need to combat and defeat militant Islamist groups within Pakistan’s borders. Nor has the United States developed any real strategy for addressing this challenge.

But isn't this the whole enchilada? We are waging a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan premised on the fact that institutions and individuals favorably disposed to U.S. interests must prevail. Pakistan is also engaged in this counter-insurgency - mostly on the other side.

The Kagans lament the lack of a strategy for Pakistan, while pressing the U.S. to keep "resourcing" the Afghan war. But if you don't have a strategy for ending Pakistan's support for insurgent groups inside Afghanistan, you don't have a strategy to win the war in Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

Most Americans See Pakistani Complicity

According to a Friday poll from Rasmussen, a majority of Americans think Pakistan knew where bin Laden was:

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 84% of American Adults think it’s at least somewhat likely that high-level officials in the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding. That includes 57% who say it is Very Likely they knew. Only nine percent (9%) believe it’s not likely that Pakistan knew.

Just 15% of Americans say the United States should continue military and financial aid to Pakistan. Sixty-three percent (63%) say that aid should not continue. Twenty-two percent (22%) are not sure.

May 6, 2011

Bin Laden: Family Guy

The world knows bin Laden as the architect of mass terror, but according to Rediff he was also something of a domestic maestro:

A senior security expert in Islamabad told that the police officers who interrogated Osama's 12-year-old daughter and his three wives are marvelling at Osama's ability to manage such a large family so harmoniously under one roof even while hiding from the world and its best spy agencies.

May 5, 2011

Foreign Policy Distractions


In the course of disparaging the Bush administration's handling of bin Laden at Tora Bora, Jacob Stokes praises President Obama's ability to multitask:

In contrast, President Obama – while managing the uprising in the Middle East, the war in Afghanistan and a government on the brink of shutdown – could have been too distracted to pay attention to what were surely incomplete intelligence reports saying the CIA had located bin Laden. He could have followed the advice of members of Congress and put the U.S. in the lead of the war in Libya, which would have occupied a significant portion of the national security apparatus’s attention. All of those things could have taken President Obama’s eye off the goal of capturing bin Laden. This opportunity could have been squandered.

This doesn't sound all that plausible to me. First, Libya is a fairly large distraction in its own right - it's not an Iraq-style debacle by any means, but it certainly reflects poorly on the administration's decision-making process. (For instance, where was Hillary Clinton yesterday - Islamabad? Nope, she was in Rome, trying to rescue the Libyan intervention.) Second, no matter what was going on, if CIA personnel walk into the Oval Office and say they think they know where bin Laden is living, any president is going to stop what he or she is doing and pay attention.

I think Stokes is a lot closer to the mark to say that casualty aversion was the prime culprit at Tora Bora.

(Photo credit: Pete Souza)

May 4, 2011

Debating Pakistan

Larison agrees that asking Pakistan to account for its behavior with respect to bin Laden is reasonable, but cautions against leaping to conclusions:

What bothers me about the snap judgments about Pakistan’s complicity (as opposed to complicity on the part of a relative few people within Pakistani intelligence) is that they are not informed by any clear evidence of complicity apart from the location of the compound. There is an assumption that complicity simply must be the explanation for why bin Laden was where he was, and there is an added assumption that this implicates a large part of the Pakistani establishment. This is jumping to conclusions at its worst. If there were elements within the ISI that sheltered bin Laden, as I assume there were, that doesn’t prove that they were acting with the knowledge or approval of all Pakistani authorities.

Pew Poll: U.S. Still Divided on Afghanistan

According to a new Pew Research poll following the death of bin Laden:

While the public is more optimistic about success, there is little change in opinion about maintaining U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The public remains divided over whether the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until the situation has stabilized (47%) or remove troops as soon as possible (48%), virtually unchanged from a month ago (44% keep troops, 50% remove troops).

Declaring Victory


Thomas Mahnkem warns against it:

There will be a temptation among some quarters at home and abroad to declare, "Mission accomplished". Opponents of the war in Afghanistan will cite Bin Laden's death as evidence strengthening the case for reducing U.S. forces in the region. Those who oppose a vigorous internationalist strategy will escalate their calls for the United States to adopt more of an "offshore" role. The Pakistanis will attempt to tout their cooperation with the United States in bringing bin Laden to justice while diverting American attention from such uncomfortable questions as how and why bin Laden was able to live for months or years under the noses of Pakistani military and intelligence officers. Other partners, whose enthusiasm for defeating al Qaeda has been limited, may be perfectly willing to declare victory and go home.

This temptation must be resisted, however. Protracted wars are not decided on the outcome of any individual episode. Rather, they turn on the progressive attrition of the adversary's sources of power. Similarly, this conflict will not end in a single battle or campaign.

Part of what has bedeviled the U.S. in Afghanistan is this conflation of the ideological struggle against the "jihadism" represented by Osama bin Laden with the counter-insurgency against Pashtun militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. There are connections between the two, obviously, but they are not the same thing.

What I think proponents of "declaring victory" wish to do is wind down the nation building in Afghanistan, but not give up on trying to thwart terrorist threats around the globe. I think the manner in which bin Laden was dispatched makes a decent case for a counter-terrorist approach that relies on intelligence, small bases and precision instead of a full blown effort to rebuild Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

May 3, 2011

Geographer Predicted bin Laden's Hideout

Great story here:

Could Osama bin Laden have been found faster if the CIA had followed the advice of ecosystem geographers from the University of California, Los Angeles? Probably not, but the predictions of UCLA geographer Thomas Gillespie, who, along with colleague John Agnew and a class of undergraduates, authored a 2009 paper predicting the terrorist’s whereabouts, were none too shabby. According to a probabilistic model they created, there was an 88.9% chance that bin Laden was hiding out in a city less than 300 km from his last known location in Tora Bora: a region that included Abbottabad, Pakistan, where he was killed last night.

That's via Matthew Yglesias who believes the fact that bin Laden was holed up in a swanky compound in a city dispells the myth that terrorists need safe havens:

For one thing, a terrorist in rural Afghanistan is, by definition, not in the United States. It’s also hard to get from rural Afghanistan to the United States. And it’s difficult to communicate with people who aren’t in rural Afghanistan. It’s also, as Gillespie says, relatively likely that people will know what you’re up to. And in the scheme of things, it’s easier to be spotted by spy satellites and the like.

I'd also add that terrorists holed up in remote regions of lawless or poorly governed states are vulnerable to attack - by drones or from the air. We can also collect intelligence on terrorist networks without nation building in Afghanistan.

May 2, 2011

Pakistan: Friend or Foe?

Whenever an allied government doesn’t measure up to what the U.S. expects of it, it is tempting to accuse it of perfidy or betrayal, but that avoids considering whether we are expecting something that the ally can reasonably provide. Libya hawks have taken to bashing Germany for its pacifism, which is another way of saying that allies are supposed to act like satrapies: they are not permitted to make independent judgments about policy questions, nor are they allowed to act in their own interests. Iraq hawks derided Turkey for its opposition to the invasion, and some of them built up entire narratives that portrayed France as our traditional nemesis. Considering how widely loathed our government is in Pakistan, and considering how antagonistic many of our policies are to Pakistani interests, the U.S. has no reason to expect any Pakistani cooperation. For various reasons, we have received some cooperation anyway. Inevitably, that isn’t enough for some people, who seem to expect allied governments to commit a sort of suicide to fulfill our demands. - Daniel Larison

This is a very fair point with respect to Pakistan and their support for the Afghan Taliban, but I don't think it applies to allegations that they sheltered bin Laden or other al-Qaeda members. I think we agree that pushing Pakistan to do something it is almost constitutionally incapable of doing is reckless. Pakistan support for the Afghan Taliban is something that is deemed, for better or worse, a vital Pakistani interest and U.S. bribes and bombs have not really altered that calculus. We can't transform Pakistan into a country that suddenly trusts India and therefore doesn't seek strategic depth in Afghanistan - and efforts to change Pakistani behavior in this regard will naturally run aground, if not destabilize the country worse than it already has.

But what does that have to do with bin Laden and al-Qaeda? Keeping bin Laden secreted away doesn't advance Pakistan's aims vis-a-vis India or Afghanistan, as far as I can tell. And even if the ISI did have some kind of rationale, so what? Ultimately, we have to have some red lines and harboring fugitives responsible for slaughtering Americans on American soil is surely one of them.

Now, it's possible that bin Laden built a walled compound a few hundred yards away from a major Pakistani military institution with no one batting an eye. It's also possible that he managed to evade one of the most intense manhunts in human history without any help from well-placed insiders in the ISI or Pakistani military. (Jeffrey Goldberg makes that case here.) Even if he had that help, it's quite possible that the upper echelons in Pakistan's military (and certainly the civilian government) weren't quite clued in as to what was going on - or weren't very interested in finding out. We can't rule out sheer incompetence, either, given how much of it is routinely on display in our own government.

But it's also quite possible - I would say plausible - that Pakistan is at least partially complicit in sheltering bin Laden. I don't think that's a reason to invade or attack the country - which would be an insane act. But I don't think it's unreasonable to probe this question with more urgency and to demand changes in Pakistan's behavior if their complicity can be proven.

Under Pakistan's Wing?

Steve Coll reflects on the death of bin Laden:

The initial circumstantial evidence suggests... that bin Laden was effectively being housed under Pakistani state control. Pakistan will deny this, it seems safe to predict, and perhaps no convincing evidence will ever surface to prove the case. If I were a prosecutor at the United States Department of Justice, however, I would be tempted to call a grand jury. Who owned the land on which the house was constructed? How was the land acquired, and from whom? Who designed the house, which seems to have been purpose-built to secure bin Laden? Who was the general contractor? Who installed the security systems? Who worked there? Are there witnesses who will now testify as to who visited the house, how often, and for what purpose?

A lot more questions than answers at this point.

Did Pakistan Betray Him?

Interesting thought from Tom Ricks:

What suspicious minds are asking: Why did the Pakistanis give him up? And what did we give in return?

I also think this will strongly up the pressure on the Obama Administration to end its involvement in Afghanistan. Not just politicians but the man on the street is likely to say, Hey, we got him, mission accomplished, let's go home.

If Pakistan did indeed tip the U.S. off to bin Laden's whereabouts, did they do so as a way to ease the U.S. out of Afghanistan? It doesn't sound all that crazy...

A Compound, Not a Cave


Picking up on Ben's post below, the important subtext of bin Laden's very welcome demise is less the future of al-Qaeda (important as that is) but the future of Pakistan. As Jane Perlez writes:

With Bin Laden’s death, perhaps the central reason for an alliance forged on the ashes of 9/11 has been removed, at a moment when relations between the countries are already at one of their lowest points as their strategic interests diverge over the shape of a post-war Afghanistan.

For nearly a decade, the United States has paid Pakistan more than $1 billion a year for counterterrorism operations whose chief aim was the killing or capture of Bin Laden, who slipped across the border from Afghanistan after the American invasion.

The circumstance of Bin Laden’s death may not only jeopardize that aid, but will also no doubt deepen suspicions that Pakistan has played a double game, and perhaps even knowingly harbored the Qaeda leader.

Perlez goes on to provide important details as to bin Laden's hideaway:

Rather, he was killed in Abbottabad, a city of about 500,000, in a large and highly secured compound that, a resident of the city said, sits virtually adjacent to the grounds of a military academy. In an ironic twist, the academy was visited just last month by the Pakistani military chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, where he proclaimed that Pakistan had “cracked” the forces of terrorism, an assessment that was greeted with skepticism in Washington.

In addition, the city hosts numerous Pakistani forces — three different regiments, and a unit of the Army Medical Corps. According to some reports, the compound and its elaborate walls and security gates may have been built specifically for the Qaeda leader in 2005, hardly an obscure undertaking in a part of the city that the resident described as highly secure.

So in 2005, people start fortifying a compound to repel a ground assault in very close proximity to a major military institution and no one inside Pakistan looks into it? Is that believable?

One can understand the thinking behind Pakistan's support for Afghan Taliban groups, cultivated as an extension of Pakistan's strategic goals in a neighboring territory - but what explains covert assistance to bin Laden, if such assistance was in fact offered (or passively extended)? Was keeping bin Laden alive an effort to keep the U.S. gravy train rolling?

(As a side note, the photo above is via Nicholas Jackson who notes how quickly the bin Laden compound was located on Google Maps.)

Pakistan's Osama Problem

One key point which will be much discussed in the coming weeks is the role Pakistan's authorities played in protecting the location of Osama bin Laden over the past several years. Rather than living in a cave or a remote area, it appears now that bin Laden has been in roughly the same location for multiple years, perhaps stretching back to 2005, when modifications were made to the compound where he was killed.

The question during the entire hunt for bin Laden has always been to what degree Pakistan was merely useless vs. actively undermining our efforts. Now Yahoo's Laura Rozen reports the area where bin Laden was killed is going to spark these questions once again given its population and location:

Obama commended Pakistani officials as he touted the effort to hunt down Bin Laden. But some critics are already pointing out the incongruity of Bin Laden, who had long been thought to be sequestered in far more remote parts of the country, turning up in an affluent suburb of Pakistan's capital - one that is filled with Pakistani military officials, no less.

"Abbottabad has a large military cantonment area and the Army college and exam center are located there," a former U.S. official who has worked in Pakistan told The Envoy. "It is very much off the usual track for foreigners … and I simply do not believe Bin Ladin could hide there unaided by or unknown to the Pakistanis."

It seems noteworthy that in President Obama's remarks on the subject, he thanked Pakistan without expressing anything they actually did to help the process along - and it's clear from the White House briefings tonight on the raid that he did not share intel with them, or indeed with any nation, taking a unilateral path instead. Rozen's source leads us to the question many in the administration and outside it are likely thinking about tonight: who in Pakistan's government knew Osama was there, and how long did they know it?

April 28, 2011

The Endgame Cometh


Happy Mujahideen Victory Day.

Nineteen years ago, today, a rag-tag group of insurgents overthrew the previously Soviet-supported Afghan government. It’s a national holiday here in Kabul. The roads, usually clogged with traffic and pedestrians, are clear not only because Afghans are staying home to celebrate but also because many international civilians are on lockdown.

A string of high profile attacks on government and military buildings in the past few weeks have cast a pall over the holiday. And a blockbuster prison break this week has only added to tensions.

But in commemorating a day that was precipitated by the withdrawal of Soviet troops three years earlier in 1989, it’s worth looking forward to how the next major foreign military withdrawal from Afghanistan might shape the country.

Lost in the stories of Taliban infiltration of Afghan security forces has been reporting on how Afghans across the country are starting to hedge their bets as U.S. and coalition forces prepare to drawdown their forces this July, a process that should end by 2014.

Taliban are turning themselves in to authorities to be reintegrated into society, sometimes as part of local militias. Ethnic minority groups are beginning to rearm themselves in anticipation of a return of the Pashtun Taliban. And armies of pundits have weighed in on the false hope of talks with the Taliban or are exasperated that a 10-year war has gone on this long without a diplomatic component to compliment the military hardware.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of all this is what exactly happens after 2014. Ahmed Rashid recently commented on Karzai’s request for a “strategic partnership agreement” with the U.S. after 2014:

The Pentagon is keen on this so it can maintain between two and six bases in Afghanistan to keep pressure on al-Qaeda. Most countries in the region – such as Pakistan, China and Russia – will object to an indefinite U.S. military presence, while Iran will see it as a permanent threat.

The New York Times reports that upon hearing talk of a U.S. presence beyond 2014, Iranian, Indian and Russian officials made a mad dash to Kabul. The Times goes on to explain how talk of long-term U.S. bases could sink the burgeoning peace negotiations:

[The strategic partnership agreement] is without doubt a delicate process, and one that comes at a critical time. Afghan officials have expressed concern that the negotiations could scuttle peace talks with the Taliban, now in their early stages, because the insurgents have insisted that foreign forces must leave the country before they will deal. That they are already talking is an indication they are willing to compromise on the timing of a withdrawal – but it is hard to imagine Taliban acceptance of a lasting American presence here.

Discussions of permanents bases also plays into Afghan conspiracy theories that the U.S. is only here to steal Afghanistan’s mineral wealth and to have a permanent base in the region from which to exert influence over the eventual nuclear state of Iran and the current nuclear power of Pakistan, to say nothing of China and Russia.

A Wall Street Journal piece nicely explores the geopolitical posturing that surrounds an Afghan-U.S. strategic partnership:

Pakistan is lobbying Afghanistan’s president against building a long-term strategic partnership with the U.S., urging him instead to look to Pakistan – and its Chinese ally – for help in striking a peace deal with the Taliban and rebuilding the economy, Afghan officials say…

Some U.S. officials said they had heard details of the Kabul meeting, and presumed they were informed about [Pakistan's] entreaties in part, as one official put it, to "raise Afghanistan's asking price" in the partnership talks. That asking price could include high levels of U.S. aid after 2014. The U.S. officials sought to play down the significance of the Pakistani proposal. Such overtures were to be expected at the start of any negotiations, they said; the idea of China taking a leading role in Afghanistan was fanciful at best, they noted.

And yet, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Afghanistan, has met Karzai three times since the Pakistani overture.


(AP Photo)

April 25, 2011

Obama's Foreign Policy


I'm just getting started on Ryan Lizza's big piece on the Obama administration's foreign policy, but this bit jumped out at me from the opening:

One of Donilon’s overriding beliefs, which Obama adopted as his own, was that America needed to rebuild its reputation, extricate itself from the Middle East and Afghanistan, and turn its attention toward Asia and China’s unchecked influence in the region. America was “overweighted” in the former and “underweighted” in the latter, Donilon told me. “We’ve been on a little bit of a Middle East detour over the course of the last ten years,” Kurt Campbell, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said. “And our future will be dominated utterly and fundamentally by developments in Asia and the Pacific region.”

So what has the administration done during its first years in office? Well, they launched a major effort to rekindle Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, surged tens of thousands of additional troops into Afghanistan (while quietly moving out the timeline for withdrawal to 2014), escalated military strikes in Pakistan and jumped into the middle of Libya's civil war.

For an administration intent on refocusing American foreign policy away from the Middle East and "unwinding" America's wars, they sure seem to have gone about it in a strange way.

(AP Photo)

Peace With the Taliban

Jackson Diehl isn't impressed with the Obama administration's Afghan exit strategy:

The military drawdown appears likely to be accompanied by a new attempt to promote a political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promised a “diplomatic surge” in a February speech in which she seemed to soften previous conditions for talks with the Taliban. The administration is said to be quietly encouraging a Turkish initiative to allow the Taliban to open an office in Turkey, which would provide a clear channel for communications.

The idea of a quick political fix is seductive. There’s just one problem: It’s an illusion. Not only is there no chance of striking a workable deal with the Taliban, but the pursuit of one is only likely to make an already difficult political situation in Afghanistan worse.

The idea of some kind of political settlement to the Afghan war has been a hobbyhorse of a number of realists, but I don't see it happening. Unless we're willing to completely cede the field to Pakistan and their Taliban surrogates and call that a "political victory" there really is no political solution that is going to satisfy all parties to the conflict. I think it's immensely naive to argue that the Taliban can be convinced, bribed, threatened or cajoled into fully renouncing al-Qaeda, and even if they did formally break with the group, Afghanistan is a huge, rural country with plenty of places for al-Qaeda to hide even without formal Taliban sanction. Al-Qaeda managed to set up shop in Afghanistan with 100,000 U.S. troops in the country. Presumably they could do so again when U.S. troop numbers dwindle.

However, unlike Diehl, I don't believe the absence of a negotiated settlement is grounds for never leaving Afghanistan. Quite the contrary, it is the best argument for why America's effort is futile and overly ambitious. The basic fact is that the relevant political players in the Afghan war - the Taliban, Pakistan, India - have a much larger stake in the fight than the U.S. does. They have proven over time to be immune to U.S. bribes and resilient in the face of U.S. firepower. Unless we're willing to start a war with Pakistan over the future of the government of Afghanistan, we'd better start thinking about how to combat al-Qaeda terrorism without a sympathetic government in Afghanistan.

April 18, 2011

60 Cups of Tea

Last night 60 Minutes aired an expose on Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson. While acknowledging his promotion of girls’ education in Pakistan and Afghanistan, their report brought into question his “origin story,” financial irregularities within his Central Asia Institute and exactly how many schools his NGO has built.

For those unfamiliar with Three Cups of Tea - recommended reading for the rank and file of both the U.S. military and Oprah’s book club - an Outside Magazine article chronicles Mortenson’s activities in Afghanistan.

The fascinating nexus between book clubs and the military was highlighted in a New York Times piece last summer:

The collaboration [between the US military and Mortenson], which grew in part out of the popularity of “Three Cups of Tea” among military wives who told their husbands to read it, extends to the office of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Last summer, Admiral Mullen attended the opening of one of Mr. Mortenson’s schools in Pushghar, a remote village in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush mountains.

On the ground here in Afghanistan development workers will confess that Mortenson’s inspirational story reignited their passion and drive for their often frustrating line of work. However, many hold reservations about the efficacy and sustainability - to say nothing of the possible harm - of this “cowboy” approach to development work.


April 14, 2011

Did the U.S. Just Flip Off Pakistan?

Barely a day after being issued a public warning about CIA activity in Pakistan, the U.S. went ahead and bombed the country anyway. Now, maybe we're back to the tacit understanding whereby Pakistan's leaders publicly denigrate the U.S. and privately allow us to prosecute the drone war. If not, this strike seems deliberately provocative and reckless. It would be one thing if the administration had bin Laden in its sites and had to take the shot (totally justifiable, in my view), but here's how the New York Times described the targets:

The targets of the attack were militants commanded by Maulvi Nazir, a Taliban leader from South Waziristan who is closely allied to the Haqqani network, the main Afghan Taliban group supported by the Pakistani military. American and Pakistani intelligence officials say Mr. Nazir is known to harbor Arabs affiliated with Al Qaeda. The Haqqani network and fighters associated with it are also responsible for many of the attacks against American and Afghan troops in eastern Afghanistan.

The drones struck a double-cabin pickup truck and a motorcycle as they returned from Afghanistan into Pakistan, a Pakistani military official said. Seven fighters were killed and six others were wounded in the attack just south of the village of Angor Adda on the border between the two countries.

Bombing a few Taliban fighters vs. undermining and embarrassing a crucial ally against al-Qaeda. Stoking anti-Americanism in Pakistan is just a monumentally short-sighted thing to do if you want to retain the country's cooperation and ensure that its citizens (and, crucially, expats living in places like the UK) don't fill the ranks of al-Qaeda. But such are the wages of nation building in Afghanistan.

April 12, 2011

Has Obama Lost Pakistan?

One argument that's frequently advanced on behalf of the counter-insurgency effort in Afghanistan is that while Afghanistan itself may be of marginal relevance to American strategic interests, Pakistan is another matter, and instability in Afghanistan will eventually bubble over to destablize a nuclear-armed, anti-American Pakistan.

The reality, however, appears to be the opposite: American efforts to stabilize Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban insurgency are actually driving instability in Pakistan. Exhibit A is the use of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal region. Ostensibly a tool to target high level foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has broadened their reach and tempo to hit more Taliban and Pashtun militant targets. Now, Pakistan is calling time:

Pakistan has demanded that the United States steeply reduce the number of Central Intelligence Agency operatives and Special Operations forces working in Pakistan, and that it halt C.I.A. drone strikes aimed at militants in northwest Pakistan. The request was a sign of the near collapse of cooperation between the two testy allies.

Who knows how seriously this will hamper U.S. anti-terror efforts, but it can't be good.

April 8, 2011

U.S. Views on Afghan War

Gallup finds the public mostly split:


Frank Newport discusses the implications:

At this point, there does not appear to be a groundswell of opposition to U.S. involvement in that country. While the U.S. has been involved in Afghanistan for more than nine years, less than half of Americans say sending U.S. military forces there was a mistake. In contrast, it took less than a year and a half for a majority of Americans to say sending troops to Iraq was a mistake.

Americans also do not appear to be overly concerned about the way things are going in Afghanistan, with about as many saying the war is going well as say it is going badly. This is a more positive assessment than was the case throughout last year and for much of 2009 and 2008.

April 6, 2011

Al-Qaeda Back in Afghanistan?


The Wall Street Journal has an ominous report on evidence that al-Qaeda is returning to Afghanistan:

In late September, U.S. fighter jets streaked over the cedar-studded slopes of Korengal, the so-called Valley of Death, to strike a target that hadn't been seen for years in Afghanistan: an al Qaeda training camp.

Among the dozens of Arabs killed that day, the U.S.-led coalition said, were two senior al Qaeda members, one Saudi and the other Kuwaiti. Another casualty of the bombing, according to Saudi media and jihadi websites, was one of Saudi Arabia's most wanted militants. The men had come to Afghanistan to impart their skills to a new generation of Afghan and foreign fighters.

Even though the strike was successful, the very fact that it had to be carried out represents a troubling shift in the war. Nine years after a U.S.-led invasion routed almost all of al Qaeda's surviving militants in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden's network is gradually returning.

Over the past six to eight months, al Qaeda has begun setting up training camps, hideouts and operations bases in the remote mountains along Afghanistan's northeastern border with Pakistan, some U.S., Afghan and Taliban officials say. The stepped-up infiltration followed a U.S. pullback from large swatches of the region starting 18 months ago. The areas were deemed strategically irrelevant and left to Afghanistan's uneven security forces, and in some parts, abandoned entirely.

What's notable about this al-Qaeda comeback, such as it is, is that it occurred during the troop surge, when the U.S. was supposedly breaking the Taliban's momentum. So even at the moment of maximum Western troop presence, al-Qaeda is still able to worm its way into vacant corners of the country. Obviously, some analysts will read this and conclude that we must have American forces in every square inch of Afghanistan forever to prevent small al-Qaeda camps from setting up shop, but how realistic and sustainable is that?

And while the return of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is troublesome, it also makes them more vulnerable. As the WSJ notes, the U.S. has been conducting ground raids and bombing strikes against al-Qaeda targets in the country - something it cannot aggressively do against al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

(AP Photo)

April 5, 2011

Why We're Losing in Afghanistan


Mark Steyn thinks we're losing in Afghanistan because we're not killing enough Afghans:

The reason we're losing this thing is because of a lack of cultural confidence, of which the fetal cringe of this worthless husk out-parodies anything Coward could have concocted. When I'm speaking on this subject, I often get asked to reprise the words I quote in my book, from Gen. Sir Charles Napier in India explaining to the locals his position on suttee -- the tradition of burning widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. General Napier was impeccably multicultural:
You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows.You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

In the absence of cultural confidence overseas, we are expending blood and treasure building an Afghanistan fit only for pederasts, tribal heroin cartels, and the blood-soaked savages of Mazar e-Sharif.

Steyn is responding to the admittedly sad spectacle of U.S. senators blaming the Koran-burning pastor rather than the Afghans for the recent bouts of carnage in that country. And he's right about where the fault lies (with the murdering Afghans, not the moron pastor). But the idea that we're losing in Afghanistan because we're unwilling to kill enough Afghans to change their cultural practices is absurd on its face. By this definition, we can only "win" in Afghanistan when Afghans don't go on murderous rampages against foreigners. That's an unreasonable standard and one that's wholly disconnected from the (tenuous) counter-terrorism rationales that still keep large contingents of Western troops in the country.

(AP Photo)

March 30, 2011

Afghanistan's April Showers


The Persian new year was celebrated in Afghanistan just over a week ago. With it's passing, millions of wood-burning stoves have been relegated to storage and spring has officially arrived. Budding rose bushes and apricot trees dot Kabul courtyards.

But spring also heralds the return of the insurgent fighting season. The retreating cold releases its grip on supply routes to safe-havens across the mountainous Pakistani border, while the increasingly dense foliage provides impressive cover from NATO and U.S. fire.

There is hope, however, in both Washington and Kabul, that this spring will mark a new year that breaks the rhythm of war in Afghanistan. President Barack Obama's 30,000 troop surge, which came into place last fall, along with General David Petraeus' renewed focus on special operations and the continued enlargement of the Afghan National army have secured a handful of strategic districts in the country's restive south for the first time in years. Cricket diplomacy between Pakistan and India could pave the way toward Pakistan playing a more constructive role in negotiations with Afghanistan's Taliban. And fallout from the corruption scandal at Afghanistan's biggest bank may push forward reforms and introduce some semblance of accountability in the Karzai government. Just last fall, six in ten Afghans said the country was moving in the right direction.

Granted, expectations should be tethered. The afghan public is weary of the foreign military presence and gruesome pictures of a U.S. "kill team" do little to allay the fears of civilian casualties, which reached a high water mark last year. Moreover, this past winter proved more violent than most, a disturbing portent for the coming year. Barely a week into the new year, 300 Taliban - yes, 300 - overran an entire district in eastern Afghanistan.

Only a day before the Taliban invasion from the east, Laura King wrote this in the L.A. Times:

In addition, the spring will test a gamble by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization force in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops are being withdrawn from areas once described as crucial bulwarks against Pakistani-based militant groups such as the Haqqani network and the Hezb-i-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
U.S. troops have been "repositioned" away from former battlegrounds such as the Pech and Korangal valleys in Kunar province, where commanders said sophisticated surveillance and "intelligence-driven" raids would prevent a rush of cross-border movement.

Should old acquaintance be forgot, indeed.


(AP Photo)

March 29, 2011

Rolling Stone and "War Porn"

About a month ago, I shared some serious qualms I had about the veracity of a story by Michael Hastings in Rolling Stone on the PSYOP front. This month, RS is back again with more questionable coverage of the front, as Joshua Foust points out:

Reading the Rolling Stone piece, a reader walks away thinking that the killing of civilians is widespread and not at all limited to the troops associated with the “kill team.” The article paints the killings as the inevitable consequence of low morale and a rejection of counterinsurgency, and worse – it implies that murder is, in some way, a fact of being a soldier.

These sorts of implications, however, are difficult to square with the truth. Attention was first shed on the killings by fellow soldiers disgusted at the “kill team’s” alleged actions. Army rules — and U.S. law — considers such actions grievous crimes and stipulates immediate and harsh punishment for them. While the Army bureaucracy was slow to move — sadly, all too common regardless of the issue, whether an illegal killing, a problem with healthcare or even adapting to a rural insurgency in a war most people had forgotten about — that doesn’t automatically mean there is a cover up. Incompetence is a far more reasonable explanation than malice.

The point is, this is starting to turn into "war porn" - pairing shock video and images designed to create buzz. But the effect is to turn all combat deaths into murder (something that the RS author might believe, but most people don't), and murder exploited to sell magazines. Foust again:

There is a term for the sort of journalism Rolling Stone is engaging in here: war porn. In 2005, George Zornick wrote of the growing trend of many people both in and out of the military treating images of the war — weapons, death, combat and so on — in the same way one would treat pornography. The people posting these images, Zornick explained, “appear to regard the combat photos with sadistic glee, and pathological wisecracks follow almost every post.”

Continue reading "Rolling Stone and "War Porn"" »

Bin Laden on the Move

Syed Saleem Shahzad reports that Osama bin Laden has been quite mobile of late and parses the implications:

After a prolonged lull, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has launched a series of covert operations in the rugged Hindu Kush mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan following strong tip-offs that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden has been criss-crossing the area in the past few weeks for high-profile meetings in militant redoubts....

The development has fueled speculation in intelligence circles that al-Qaeda could be planning another major attack along the lines of the September 11, 2001, assault on New York and Washington, and the July 2007 foiled bomb attack in London.

However, extensive investigations by Asia Times Online, including exchanges within al-Qaeda's camps, point in another direction: given the nature of Bin Laden's meetings, this appears to be the beginning of a new era for a broader struggle in which al-Qaeda, through its Laskhar al-Zil (Shadow Army), will try to capitalize on the Arab revolts and the Palestinian struggle and also revitalize and redefine its role in Afghanistan.

The whole piece is worth a read. The upshot appears to be that al-Qaeda number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri has lost an internecine ideological battle and as a result al-Qaeda may be changing strategy. Either way, hopefully a more mobile bin Laden means a more vulnerable one.

March 23, 2011

Nation Building in Afghanistan

Paul Miller makes the case for nation building in Afghanistan:

There are no practical alternatives. Vice President Biden and a growing chorus of others believe we should give up rebuilding Afghanistan and, instead, sustain an indefinite worldwide assassination campaign against al Qaida's senior leaders. His view of the war is myopic, narrow, and troubling. Such a campaign would do nothing to address Pakistan, the drug trade, NATO, the other great powers, or any of our other interests across South Asia. It is also morally troubling -- it amounts to a declaration that we reserve the right to kill anyone we deem to be a terrorist, anywhere in the world, forever. Call it the Biden Doctrine of the Forever War. States should not maintain a state of war indefinitely just because it is too inconvenient to settle the political conditions that led to the war in the first place. War should be the last resort, not the first.

Nation building in Afghanistan is the only pragmatic policy option that will secure the full range of our interests in South Asia and yield an actual end-point to the war, which is why Petraeus is right to be alarmed about the funding levels for our civilians.

I think Miller is right to warn about an open-ended campaign of assassinations against senior al-Qaeda leaders but his case for nation-building doesn't address that at all. What about al-Qaeda leaders operating outside of Afghanistan? The central question with respect to Afghanistan is which war our nation building efforts hope to win - the one against a native Taliban insurgency or the one against global jihadism? We could "win" in Afghanistan and still lose the broader effort. When you're dealing with constrained resources - and an executive branch in Washington seemingly eager to open up new fronts across the world - you have to question the wisdom of putting all our counter-terrorism eggs in one hugely expensive sinkhole called Afghanistan.

Furthermore, it's extremely difficult to see what American policy can do inside Afghanistan to "stabilize" Pakistan, other than to consent to Pakistan's wishes and make Afghanistan its proxy. Pakistan has made it abundantly clear that it will buck American wishes inside Afghanistan, yet proponents of indefinite nation building seem to wave this problem away or insist that somehow chaos in Afghanistan will endanger Pakistan. But that overlooks the rather glaring fact that it is Pakistan that is facilitating the chaos in Afghanistan for its own ends. Nation building proponents can't square that circle.

March 16, 2011

U.S. Opposed to Afghan War


A new Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that two-thirds of the American public (64 percent) say that the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting and almost 75 percent believe President Obama should pull "a substantial number" of combat troops out of Afghanistan this summer. On the other hand, 53 percent of those polled believe the president will not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan this summer.

(AP Photo)

March 8, 2011

Fun Afghanistan Fact of the Day

Courtesy of Ann Marlowe:

Second, plenty of Taliban and al-Qaeda sympathizers and enablers are already in the Afghan government, both in Parliament and in governor and district governor positions appointed by President Karzai. In fact, President Karzai’s choice for speaker of the lower house of Parliament, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, was the man who brought Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in the first place. On Sunday, the legislators chose an obscure Uzbek Afghan as speaker, an MP from strife-torn Kunduz Province who had previously fought with Hekmatyar’s group Hezb-i-Islami. Not an encouraging selection, but miles ahead of Sayyaf, who’d had the highest vote total on a previous ballot.

Her whole piece, on why it's pointless to negotiate with the Taliban, is worth reading.

March 7, 2011

Americans Want Afghan Pullout

According to a new poll from Rasmussen Reports:

A majority of voters, for the first time, support an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan or the creation of a timetable to bring them all home within a year.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 31% of Likely U.S. Voters now say all troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, while another 21% say a firm timetable should be established to bring all troops home within a year’s time. The combined total of 52% who want the troops home within a year is a nine-point jump from 43% last September. Just 37% felt that way in September 2009.

Only 34% of voters now think there should be no timetable for withdrawal. Fifteen percent (15%) are not sure.

March 3, 2011

The Death of Shahbaz Bhatti


The New York Times shares footage of Shahbaz Bhatti, the Pakistani minister gunned down this week in the latest violence in the increasingly fractured country. Bhatti, who had recently met with Secretary of State Clinton - was Pakistan's lone Christian minister. In the interview, Bhatti delivered a defiant rebuke to Pakistani radicals:

They want to impose their radical philosophy in Pakistan and whoever stands against their radical philosophy, they threaten them. When I’m leading this campaign against the Shariah laws and for the abolishment of [the] blasphemy law and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized, persecuted Christians and other minorities, these Taliban threaten me.

But I want to share that I believe in Jesus Christ, who has given his own life for us. I know what is the meaning of [the] cross and I’m following … the cross.

I’m ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights. So these threats and these warnings cannot change my opinion and principles. I will prefer to die for my principles and for the justice of my community rather to compromise.

Keep in mind that nearly all of Pakistan's provinces have an active separatist movement. In the wake of other events across the country, as well as increased violence and antagonism toward more liberal politicians and leaders, I think it is very likely that moderates in the nation will remain on the retreat.

(AP Photo)

A Vital Valley - A Vital War?


Late February, the New York Times ran an account of how the U.S. military was pulling out the Pech Valley, an area earlier deemed "vital" to America's war efforts against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Now, apparently, not so much. Or in the words of Major General Campbell, the U.S. isn't retreating but "realigning to provide better security for the Afghan people."

Leslie Gelb vents:

I'm not blaming the generals or their key aides who made these strategies. They were all sent to Afghanistan to do their duty for our country as Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama decreed. They were given a task to pacify an Afghanistan that we could not pacify, to prepare Afghans to govern and fight for themselves who turned out to be unwilling to fairly govern or effectively fight. The generals and their aides were given the task of searching for answers, for workable strategies, that didn't exist.

When viewed from the objective of keeping the American homeland safe from terrorist attacks, having 100,000-plus Western forces trying to prop up a ramshackle government in Afghanistan is not the best use of resources.

(AP Photo)

U.S., UK & Canadian Views on Afghan War


According to a new poll from Angus Reid, more Canadians and Britons oppose the Afghan war than Americans do:

A year ago, a majority of Americans (58%) supported the mission in Afghanistan, while about two-in-five (38%) opposed it.

Now, in a trend that began late last year, respondents are evenly split, with 47 per cent backing the mission, and 46 per cent opposing it. The level of rejection to the Afghan mission is highest in the Northeast and West (both at 49%) and lowest in the South (44%).

For more than a year, a majority of Britons has expressed opposition to the mission in Afghanistan. This month, only 31 per cent of respondents are backing the military operation, while 60 per cent are against it.

This month’s result matches the high level of opposition to the mission, which was recorded in October 2010. Respondents in London (63%) and Scotland (62%) are more likely to reject the military operation.

For the first time since the war began, three-in-five Canadians (63%) voice opposition to the mission in Afghanistan. Support for the military effort has dropped to the lowest level recorded (32%).

This month’s numbers represent a drastic shift from a survey conducted a year ago, where 47 per cent of Canadians backed the war.

Full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

February 23, 2011

Can Pakistan Hang Davis?

The New York Times clarifies the legal issues involved:

If Mr. Davis was listed as a technical staff member for the embassy’s diplomatic mission, then he would be covered by a 1961 treaty that gives diplomats total immunity to criminal prosecution. In that case, Pakistan should be allowed only to expel him. Victims’ families, however, might still be able to sue him for civil damages.

But if Mr. Davis were instead listed as a staff member for the consulate in Lahore, then he would be covered by a 1963 treaty that governs the rights of consular officials and that allows host countries to prosecute them if they commit a “grave crime.”

The longer this drags on, the more difficult it becomes for Zardari's government to extricate itself from the domestic firestorm this case has created.

February 21, 2011

Afghans See Gradual Improvement in Their Lives

According to Gallup, there has been a slow but steady uptick in the number of Afghans who say they are "thriving." Those thriving are still a minority, however:


The Davis Case Gets Stranger


The diplomatic standoff between Pakistan and the U.S. over the American Raymond Davis has taken a fairly odd turn. Reports Rediff:

Double murder-accused US official Raymond Davis has been found in possession of top-secret Central Intelligence Agency documents, which point to him or the feared American Task Force 373 (TF373) operating in the region, providing Al Qaeda terrorists with "nuclear fissile material" and "biological agents," according to a report.
And why, you might be asking, would a CIA official be working to give al-Qaeda fissile material? The "report" notes:
Pakistan's ISI stat[ed] that top-secret CIA documents found in Davis's possession point to his, and/or TF373, providing to al Qaeda terrorists "nuclear fissile material" and "biological agents", which they claim are to be used against the United States itself in order to ignite an all-out war in order to re-establish the West's hegemony over a global economy that is warned is just months away from collapse.

How nuking the U.S. would enable it to re-establish hegemony over the global economy is beyond me...

(AP Photo)

February 18, 2011

Pakistan: Friend or Foe?


The Wall Street Journal reports that ties between the CIA and Pakistan's ISI are at a striking low point:

The state of relations, while never perfect, is now alarming counter-terrorism and military officials, who say close cooperation between the Central Intelligence Agency and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence is essential to the campaign against al Qaeda and the war against the Taliban and its allies in Afghanistan.

Behind the falling out is a series of controversial incidents starting late last year, which prompted tit-for-tat accusations that burst into the open with the December outing of the CIA's station chief in Islamabad.

More recently, tensions have risen to new highs over Pakistan's detention of former Special Forces soldier Raymond Davis, a U.S. government contractor in the city of Lahore, for killing two Pakistanis in disputed circumstances. A Pakistani court Thursday ruled to delay by three weeks a hearing on whether Mr. Davis is covered by diplomatic immunity.

Michael Cohen argues that Pakistan isn't really an ally:

Pakistan is one of America's largest foreign aid recipients and one of our supposedly most important allies in the region; just this week the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee John Kerry traveled to Islamabad to try and resolve the issue - and was rebuffed; and the Obama Administration has steadily escalated the issue even threatening a downgrade in US-Pakistan relations in order to resolve the dispute.

Yet, Pakistan still refuses to release Davis. Indeed the announcement, even after Kerry's visit, that the matter will need another three weeks of consideration is a huge diplomatic slap in the face to the United States and especially this Administration.

Now I understand that the Pakistan government has some issues with anti-US attitudes in the country (clearly through some fault of their own) . . . and I know that Pakistan allows NATO supply trucks to transit the country and it allows US military drones to attack suspected al Qaeda terrorists (as well as those Pakistan Taliban groups that threaten the Pakistani state). But shall we catalog for a moment all the ways in which Pakistan is not just a lousy ally, but is actually undermining US interests.

And the indictment Cohen rolls out is indeed serious, but step back and ask yourself what other country on the planet would consent to having its territory bombed with something approaching impunity by another country?

The question is whether Pakistan would be just as uncooperative if the U.S. wasn't raining down Hellfire missiles in the tribal area - and I'd have to think they would be. Pakistan's stance toward the U.S. in Afghanistan is fundamentally driven by its concerns with India - concerns we obviously can't mollify.

(AP Photo)

February 15, 2011

Social Engineering Is Hard

American officials say privately that corruption in Karzai’s government directly feeds the insurgency. And yet, as my piece in the magazine shows, the American response to the corruption in Karzai’s government has been one of passivity and silence. Meanwhile, American Marines and soldiers are pressing the offensive in the south, fighting and dying on Karzai’s behalf.

On corruption, the American strategy isn’t clear. The American military appears to be succeeding in clearing the Taliban from large swaths of southern Afghanistan. But then what? At some point, the Afghans themselves have to take over—that is, the Afghan government. Without a government that is legitimate—that serves the people—it’s hard to imagine that the hard-won American gains can ever stick. - Dexter Filkins

One thing that's frequently lost in the discussion of corruption in Afghanistan is that the country is surrounded by very corrupt countries. It's literally impossible for the U.S. to stamp it out fully, which is why the efforts have been lackluster or unimpressive. The basic problem for the U.S. in Afghanistan is not that Washington has been inattentive to the country's many problems, it's that we've embarked on a program of state-building that requires infinitely more blood and treasure than we're willing to devote to the task.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

February 9, 2011

The Taliban and al-Qaeda


Michael Cohen isn't happy with Max Boot's brusque treatment of a recent report on the prospects of splitting the Taliban from al-Qaeda:

But the worst part here is Boot's simplistic and unsupported reasoning for why this carefully researched report is wrong. He claims there is no doubt the Taliban and al Qaeda are closely linked - but actually provides no evidence, except the bizarre notion that Taliban thinking remains unchanged over the past ten years. He bemoans the fact that Mullah Omar won't trade away the chit of collaboration with al Qaeda - but why would he do such a thing before any serious negotiations with the US and/or the Karzai government?

By this argument America's enemies are not only incapable of strategic and pragmatic behavior, but should unilaterally disarm and rely on the good graces of the United States and its allies. Lastly, is it really impossible to recognize that the Taliban might have reason to turn on al Qaeda if they are returned to power - especially since the limitations on the use of US force that existed pre-9/11 certainly do not exist today and because al Qaeda would provide almost no benefit to the Taliban. At the very least isn't this a potential cleavage that we should be trying to exploit instead confidently declaring that the relationship between two organization with very different orientations and grievance structures is inviolate for all time?

I think this question of whether the Taliban can be "split" from al-Qaeda is ultimately neither here nor there. Afghanistan and Pakistan are large countries with a lot of mountainous, rural and lawless areas. Even if the "Taliban" formerly forswears ties to al-Qaeda, it's not as if the group can't stick around under the good graces (or intimidation) of another tribe in some out-of-the-way village.

The effort to get some members of the Taliban to say publicly that they won't support al-Qaeda is fine, as far as face-saving methods of extracting U.S. forces go, but who would really believe that? And even if it were true, how could you verify that? Our government doesn't want al-Qaeda operating in the U.S. - but they do. We're talking about small groups of people here, not armed divisions.

(AP Photo)

February 8, 2011

Why Is America Unpopular in Pakistan?

"One year after the launch of the civilian assistance strategy in Pakistan, USAID has not been able to demonstrate measurable progress," said the report, an assessment of the program for the final three months of 2010. "We believe that USAID has an imperative to accumulate, analyze, and report information on the results achieved under its programs."

The Obama administration is hoping the aid program to Pakistan, the second-largest recipient of U.S. civilian aid after Afghanistan, will help stabilize the fragile but strategically important country and boost America's image among ordinary Pakistanis. The program is focusing on funding visible infrastructure projects like bridges, roads and power stations.

But the U.S. strategy has faced a number of obstacles, including an Islamist insurgency that has made it dangerous for U.S. aid personnel to operate in some parts of the country. The U.S. remains deeply unpopular in Pakistan, in part due to a campaign of unmanned Central Intelligence Agency drone strikes against Taliban militants on the border with Afghanistan. The strikes also have killed civilians. - Wall Street Journal

American drone strikes in Pakistan are frequently cited as a cause of anti-Americanism. But are they? In a Pew poll (pdf) conducted over the summer, only 35 percent of Pakistanis had even heard about drone strikes. Not surprisingly, the view of those strikes is overwhelmingly negative. Nevertheless, we have to wrestle with the fact that anti-Americanism in Pakistan runs deeper than the drone strikes and is probably not going to be assuaged with a few billion dollars.

January 18, 2011

Seymour Hersh Fail

Apparently the New Yorker's investigative reporter Seymour Hersh has gone a bit 'round the bend:

He then alleged that Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who headed JSOC before briefly becoming the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, and his successor, Vice Adm. William McRaven, as well as many within JSOC, "are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta."

Hersh may have been referring to the Sovereign Order of Malta, a Roman Catholic organization commited to "defence of the Faith and assistance to the poor and the suffering," according to its website.

"Many of them are members of Opus Dei," Hersh continued. "They do see what they're doing -- and this is not an atypical attitude among some military -- it's a crusade, literally. They seem themselves as the protectors of the Christians. They're protecting them from the Muslims [as in] the 13th century. And this is their function."

"They have little insignias, these coins they pass among each other, which are crusader coins," he continued. "They have insignia that reflect the whole notion that this is a culture war. … Right now, there’s a tremendous, tremendous amount of anti-Muslim feeling in the military community.”"

While I think some of the "clash of civilizations" sentiment clearly exists, the Malta stuff just sounds loopy.

Hearts and Minds

Max Boot lauds America's counter-insurgency effort:

That is the way good counterinsurgency works. It is a slow, agonizing, costly process, but if skillful soldiers or Marines stick to their mission, they will gradually drive the insurgents away, as the Marines are doing in Sangin.

Boot is right to praise the bravery and skill of U.S. and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan, but the counter-insurgency effort there is not always about winning 'hearts and minds' and we shouldn't lose sight of the strategic goals we're trying to accomplish here.

To that end it's worth examining a pair of photos, courtesy of Paula Broadwell, writing on Thomas Ricks' blog, about a recent mission in Afghanistan:



According to Broadwell's account, the town was riven with Taliban booby traps and a danger to U.S. troops, so it was more or less leveled. The commander of U.S. forces responsible for the attack goes on to lament that the "reconstruction would consume the remainder of my deployed life."

It's worth reflecting on this dynamic as it relates to the broader question of American strategy in Afghanistan and how best to spend American resources to protect the country from international terrorists. Take the costs of blowing up this Afghan village, add to that the cost of rebuilding this Afghan village, throw in the intangible but no less significant damage to Afghans who used to live there and the risks to coalition forces, then ask whether this and other operations like it are the most important thing we can do to prevent a terrorist attack against U.S. soil or U.S. interests globally. Broadwell's piece did not suggest al-Qaeda members were hiding in the village - indeed the word "al-Qaeda" never appears in her post.

January 17, 2011

U.S. Focused on Domestic Issues

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans rank terrorism as the 7th most important priority for the federal government, behind a host of domestic issues. The war in Afghanistan comes in at number 10. Iraq, a distant 14th.


January 13, 2011

The "Lessons" of Lebanon

Daniel Larison thinks Grover Norquist's efforts to convince conservatives to give up the war on Afghanistan won't succeed, and isn't impressed with Norquist's analogy to President Reagan's pullout from Lebanon:

If we are having an honest conversation, the first observation I would make is that very few people are going to see the relevance of what the Reagan administration did after blundering into the middle of an Israeli invasion of its neighbor when it comes to thinking about Afghanistan one way or the other. U.S. involvement in Lebanon should never have happened in the first place, as the U.S. had no security interests at stake. Reagan’s recognition and correction of his earlier error were good, but the lesson to learn from Lebanon was that we should never have been involved. Very few people on the right agree that the U.S. should never have become involved in Afghanistan, and it seems to me that almost everyone on the right, including almost all opponents of the war in Iraq, believed that the war in Afghanistan was at least initially justified and appropriate, and almost all of them continued to believe this up until very recently. The Lebanon example doesn’t help get the conversation going, because it isn’t a particularly relevant example for the subject we’re discussing.

I would disagree here and say that it's quite relevant (politically) and quite unhelpful to Norquist's cause. In my understanding of mainstream conservative sentiment on the issue, Reagan made a huge mistake in pulling out of Lebanon in response to Iranian attacks on U.S. marines. In the conventional wisdom that has taken hold among many conservative analysts, the Beirut bombings marked the beginning of the Islamist "war against the West" and Reagan's act of loss-cutting served only to embolden our enemies.

Here's Max Boot:

Norquist seems quite enamored of Ronald Reagan’s pullout from Lebanon after the suicide car-bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Perhaps he is not aware that this incident was routinely cited — along with the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993 — by Osama bin Laden in the 1990s to justify his belief that the U.S. was a “weak horse” that could be attacked with impunity.

In this telling, the Reagan and Clinton administrations should have never left Lebanon and Somalia but instead.... well, it's not quite clear what they should have done, is it? Stay? Until?

Either way, by dragging out the Lebanon example, Norquist is probably undermining his cause among most conservatives, not helping it.

Tea Party Views on Afghanistan

The Afghanistan Study Group has released a new survey of conservative and Tea Party sentiments of the war in Afghansitan.

When given a choice between three options, 66% believe we can either reduce the troop levels in Afghanistan, but continue to fight the war effectively (39%) or think we should leave Afghanistan all together, as soon as possible (27%). Just 24% of conservatives believe we should continue to provide the current level of troops to properly execute the war. 64% of Tea Party supporters think we should either reduce troop levels (37%) or leave Afghanistan (27%) while 28% support maintaining current troop levels. Among conservatives who don’t identify with the Tea Party movement, 70% want a reduction (43%) or elimination (27%) of troops while only 18% favoring continuation of the current level.

A majority of conservatives agree that the United States can dramatically lower the number of troops and money spent in Afghanistan without putting America at risk. 57% say they agree with that statement after hearing about the current number of troops in country and the funding needed to support them. Only a third (34%) do not agree with this statement. Among Tea Party supports 55% agree that we can reduce the number of troops without compromising security while 38% disagree. Among non Tea Party conservatives, 60% agree with this statement while 27% disagree.

Full results here. (pdf)

January 10, 2011

Defining Success in Afghanistan


Frederick and Kimberly Kagan state their view on what victory looks like:

Success in Afghanistan is the establishment of a political order, security situation, and indigenous security force that is stable, viable, enduring, and able--with greatly reduced international support--to prevent Afghanistan from being a safe haven for international terrorists.

This kind of thing sounds clear enough, but it really falls apart upon closer inspection. What does it mean to not be a "safe haven" for international terrorists? It can't mean that a country can't contain any terrorists - that's an absurd standard. It can't mean that the country can't have any terrorists capable of launching attacks beyond its borders, since that would mean there are literally dozens of terrorist safe havens around the world, including in Norway and the United States, which have produced individuals who traveled abroad to commit acts of terrorism or targeted their home countries for slaughter. Perhaps the authors mean that Afghanistan can't have any terrorist training camps - but given the low-tech approach shown by al-Qaeda of late, it's not clear that they need jungle gym training anymore. But if al-Qaeda is training for larger-scale operations, isn't it more likely that they'd do so in Pakistan or Yemen, where they are safer from large-scale reprisals from American air power?

In other words, this definition of success is not just vague and amorphous but untenable in an age when terrorists are a global menace lured into jihad via the Internet. You can make the case that U.S. policy in Afghanistan should be to train Afghan forces to fight the Taliban so we don't have to (a not unreasonable position), but if we're framing Afghanistan as part of a larger effort against jihadism then the investment in Afghanistan and its governing institutions is disproportionate.

(AP Photo)

January 6, 2011

U.S. Views on Afghan War

Americans have a pessimistic view of the course of the war in Afghanistan, according to a new poll:

The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that just 19% of Likely U.S. Voters think the situation in Afghanistan will get better in the next six months. Forty-one percent (41%) now expect the war in Afghanistan to get worse over the next six months while 28% predict it will stay about the same.
Rasmussen also noted that the war ranked ninth in voter importance, out of a list of ten issues.

January 3, 2011

What's Driving Pakistan's Instability?

With U.S. drone strikes cascading down on Pakistani soil at record levels in 2010 and open talk of American ground incursions into the country, many analysts are sounding the alarm that Pakistan's weak civilian government is being pushed too far. And now, said government has been roiled by the defection of two coalition partners. So has America pushed Pakistan's government to the breaking point? It appears the answer is no:

The ruling coalition headed by the Pakistan Peoples Party has struggled in recent weeks to keep its allies together amid rising criticism the government has failed to improve economic conditions, check corruption and halt growing inflation.

That doesn't mean the U.S. shouldn't be mindful of the pressure it's putting on Pakistan, but for now it seems that political discontent is boiling up around other issues.

January 2, 2011

Permanent Bases in Afghanistan


Senator Lindsey Graham thinks they're a good idea:

"I think it would be enormously beneficial to the region as well as Afghanistan. We have had air bases all over the world. A couple of air bases in Afghanistan would allow the Afghan security forces an edge against the Taliban in perpetuity. It would be a signal to Pakistan, the Taliban are never going to come back in Afghanistan that it could change their behavior," Graham said.

There is obviously going to be a U.S. security presence in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of most U.S. combat forces. But the issue of trying to use Afghanistan as a kind of strategic anchor in Central Asia is different - and from Sen. Graham's suggestion that such a presence would be "good for the region" we can infer that that's what he's thinking.

To have bases in Afghanistan, you need supply lines into Afghanistan - lines that run through Afghanistan's autocratic, unstable neighbors. The U.S. has established these lines by bribing states like Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan. Obviously, since we've been at this for a decade we could presumably continue to funnel taxpayer money in and around Central Asia to sustain longer-term military facilities in Afghanistan, but providing weapons to the Afghan government seems like a less expensive means to ensure they have a qualitative edge over the Taliban.

(AP Photo)

December 30, 2010

Losing Focus


Anatol Lieven makes a good point here:

However, if American generals genuinely want to increase such raids, then it needs to be stated emphatically that this is not just a lunatic idea, but one that demonstrates how far senior American (and British) commanders have become obsessed with the war in Afghanistan at the expense of the struggle against terrorism as a whole.

If I told you that Country X was involved in a low level civil war and that some al-Qaeda members were aiding, and indeed cooperating with, rebel factions, would the proper U.S. policy response be to invade and occupy the country with 100,000 troops, plus thousands of NATO soldiers and an aid effort that eclipsed the Marshall Plan? Probably not. It's true that the U.S. does not have the luxury of starting from square one in Afghanistan, but if the goal is to protect the American homeland from a terror attack at a reasonable cost in blood and treasure, then you really do have to question the scope of the current U.S. commitment to Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

December 29, 2010

Where NATO Forces Are


NATO recently released an updated map showing the distribution of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

December 22, 2010

Carter and Pakistan's Nukes

The Times of India reports on America's earlier effort to curtail nuclear proliferation:

Despite a persistent anxiety over its nuclear programme, the Carter administration failed miserably in efforts to pressurise Pakistan away from fuel enrichment and officials were left "scratching their heads" on how to tackle the problem, newly declassified documents have shown.

The recently declassified US government documents from the Jimmy Carter administration, published on the Internet today by the National Security Archive shed light on the critical period in the late 1970s when US first became aware of Pakistan's nuclear intentions.

The documents show that Pakistani nuclear weapons programme had been a source of anxiety for American policymakers ever since the late 1970s when Washington discovered that metallurgist A Q Khan had stolen blueprints for a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facility.

Washington will probably prove equally ineffectual when it comes to stopping Iran's nuclear program.

December 21, 2010

Afghanistan & Germany

Paul Miller puts Afghanistan into perspective:

The missing ingredient is more civilian aid. Secretary Clinton touted that the U.S. mission in Kabul now comprises some 1,100 diplomats and civilian experts, which roughly doubles or triples the presence we had prior to 2009. Add together all the soldiers serving on Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and you have several thousand more. This is still not enough. At its peak, the Allies deployed something like 63,000 people who were directly engaged with rebuilding the government and economy of West Germany after World War II. I know the cases are hardly comparable for a thousand reasons -- but most points of difference say that rebuilding Afghanistan is harder than West Germany, and so it likely needs more help, not less. All the biggest remaining challenges in Afghanistan that we have not moved to address in the last year or so -- corruption, institutional weakness, poor governance -- are civilian, not military in nature. More civilians would be the gamechanger that could change Afghanistan from a half-baked muddle-through to an outright success.

Afghanistan is winnable. We're almost there. The president's policy has many decent elements to it. But it is being sold under a stale, worn, and out-of-date headline and a poor strategic communications strategy. And it does not recognize the depth of Afghanistan's need for civilian assistance. Change that, and we will be able to look back with pride on what the United States and our allies helped achieve in Afghanistan.

Comparing Afghanistan to post-war Germany only underscores the massive difference in stakes between the two efforts. A failure to rebuild Germany after World War II would have had serious repercussions in Europe, and vis-a-vis the Soviet Union. A failure to rebuild Afghanistan would have consequences as well, but not nearly on par with that of failure in post-war Germany. Yet we've embarked on a strategy for Afghanistan that is so ambitious that even its advocates concede it's more resource-intense and difficult than the reconstruction of Germany.

But Miller does have a point - for better or worse, the administration has chosen a strategy that requires a massive infusion of American resources but, like the Bush administration before them, have tried to cut corners, all in the name of shielding the vast majority of the American public from the costs of the strategy they've embarked on.

Invading Pakistan

Senior American military commanders in Afghanistan are pushing for an expanded campaign of Special Operations ground raids across the border into Pakistan’s tribal areas, a risky strategy reflecting the growing frustration with Pakistan’s efforts to root out militants there.

The proposal, described by American officials in Washington and Afghanistan, would escalate military activities inside Pakistan, where the movement of American forces has been largely prohibited because of fears of provoking a backlash. - New York Times

I have to believe that this was leaked to pressure Pakistan into acting, otherwise the question becomes - are these raids to be conducted like American drone strikes, with a wink and a nod from the Pakistani government? Or are they to be done irrespective of what the government of Pakistan says? Both scenarios are fraught with the danger of a further destabilized Pakistan, but the later is obviously extremely more dangerous than the former.

The other question is what the U.S. military thinks this will solve. Conducting raids into Pakistan makes some sense if the problem is a lack of Pakistani capacity. If the problem is that Pakistan is sheltering certain militant groups because it views them as a leverage in Afghanistan than attacking their sanctuaries in the tribal region isn't going to change Pakistani policy - it's going to change the location of those sanctuaries.

December 17, 2010

Nation Building Is Hard

The administration has not proved very successful at the non-military elements of power, as the back and forth over how to deal with President Hamid Karzai demonstrates. Given President Obama’s timeline, we should have very aggressive efforts underway to diversify and institutionalize political power in Afghanistan. Instead we have been complicit in widespread electoral fraud -- twice -- and we have put just enough pressure on President Karzai to alienate him without achieving meaningful change in his behavior. - Kori Schake
Naturally, but finding other Afghans with the capacity and desire to lead - much less the capacity and desire to lead in a direction America finds acceptable - is hard. Maybe even impossible before 2014. That's why staking your war aims on some kind of political transformation in the country is foolhardy.

December 16, 2010

Afghanistan and Blowback

Spencer Ackerman thinks the Obama administration's Afghanistan review ducks the question of blow back:

Obama’s summary doesn’t address how to mitigate the provocative effects of the war. Its assessment of the war in Afghanistan is cautious and vague — although, to be sure, this is just the unclassified version of a longer, secret report, so perhaps there’s more detail in the secret version. But the “frail and reversible” progress in Afghanistan — giving the Taliban a bloody nose in Kandahar, training Afghan soldiers and cops — is said to set the stage for starting to draw down NATO combat forces from 2011 to 2014. And that doesn’t mean an end to the war. The summary explicitly points to “NATO’s enduring commitment beyond 2014.” What effect that will have on future Faisal Shahzads goes unaddressed.

It's a good question. On the one hand, continuing to bomb Afghanistan (and Pakistan) runs the risk of generating more ill-will and more recruits for the Taliban and/or al-Qaeda. In this sense, NATO strategy could easily be stuck in a terrible feedback loop (if it isn't already): we bomb insurgent targets (even those strictly affiliated with al-Qaeda), passions are aroused, new fighters join the fray, those fighters are bombed, and around and around we go.

On the other hand, how much can the U.S. really opt out of this feedback loop? Imagine a dramatically scaled back effort that sees the U.S. and NATO not only draw down most of its combat troops from Afghanistan but also limit its drone strikes to very "high value" and hard to reach targets. Presumably this would still enrage future Faisal Shahzads, would it not? Even at a sharply reduced rate, news of drone strikes in Pakistan's tribal area would still leak out to the wider Muslim world.

Mind you, I think the U.S. would be better served scaling back its effort in Afghanistan and reserving drone assassinations for truly high-value al-Qaeda targets. But I think we have to acknowledge honestly that there's a trade-off. One strategy courts higher short-term risks in the hopes of reversing the longer-term radical tide. The other strategy - the one in which the U.S. is currently pursuing - tries to minimize short-term risks arguably at the cost of enhancing the longer term threat. It's not an easy set of trade offs to make.

[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan]

December 15, 2010

Gelb on Afghanistan

Leslie Gelb identifies the key issue in the administration's review of Afghan policy:

Nonetheless, America’s vital interests in Afghanistan were, once again, taken for granted. U.S. forces have to stay and do most of the fighting until the Taliban and al Qaeda are sufficiently weakened for Afghan troops to take over. But why? Why? Ten years ago, after the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan was the center of the terrorist threat. Now, it’s one of many homes to terrorists, as was seen by the homegrown terrorist attack in Sweden this week. And the argument that success in Afghanistan is necessary to ward off catastrophe in Pakistan is even more specious. Pakistan will resist or fall to extremists because of what happens in Pakistan, a nation of 180 million people, not because of what happens in Afghanistan.

I would add that it's not only "specious" to make that argument about Pakistan, it's risible. Pakistan is aiding the Afghan insurgency. Pakistan is not worried about instability in Afghanistan leading to their downfall, they're worried about a stable, pro-Indian government taking shape in the country. The notion that we have to continue to fight in Afghanistan, against Pakistani-backed militants, to save Pakistan seems self-evidently absurd.

December 14, 2010

Mission Accomplished


Kori Schake offers a hats off to Defense Secretary Robert Gates for his efforts on Afghanistan. After reading it, I came away a bit confused. It's clear that Schake thinks Gates is a skilled bureaucratic operator, and obviously any good policy needs skilled bureaucrats to shepherd it through the White House. But nowhere in the encomium is anything about how Gates strategy in the actual war in Afghanistan (not Washington) is faring.

The Gates strategy - to put in place a sustained surge of forces in Afghanistan until 2014 when the Afghans will be able to fight the Taliban on their own - has hardly been proven effective yet. By all means, credit Secretary Gates for seeing his preferred policy outcome prevail in the U.S. but it hasn't prevailed in Afghanistan yet. Nor is there much evidence to suggest that if it does, that the U.S. will commensurately safer from Islamic terrorism than had we pursued a less costly and ambitious plan.

(AP Photo)

December 13, 2010

Despair or Optimism in Afghanistan?


Max Boot says the president shouldn't listen to the "counsel of despair" coming from weak-willed elites. What I would like to know is how Boot and other proponents of staying the course in Afghanistan care to address this:

General Ashfaq Kiyani, Pakistan's army chief, has launched a diplomatic offensive to persuade the United States, Britain and President Karzai to back the deal which would offer government posts to Taliban leaders prepared to renounce al-Qaeda.

It amounts to a direct challenge to Nato's current strategy to intensify the war against the Taliban-led insurgency in the hope of persuading its "reconcilable elements" to negotiate a peace.

Under General Kiyani's plan however, the insurgency's most feared faction, the "Haqqani Network" could play a role in a new 'broad-based government'.

Boot suggests that the Taliban will be more amenable to peace talks if Petraeus is given more time to bloody them and stabilize Afghanistan. But if Pakistan is sheltering and in some sense directing the insurgency, how can that plan possibly work? Giving Petreaus "more time" isn't suddenly going to change the geopolitics of the dispute or Pakistan's motivations for using Afghanistan as strategic depth against India.

(AP Photo)

Canadians Oppose Prolonged Afghan Stay

Canada is supposed to shift to a "non-combat" role in Afghanistan in 2011, but according to Angus Reid, many Canadians are unhappy with the plan:

While just over a third of Canadians support the country’s military mission in Afghanistan, the decision to keep 950 soldiers in a strictly non-combat role after 2011 has split views across the country, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found.

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 2,023 Canadian adults, more than half of respondents (56%) oppose the military operation involving Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan, while just over a third (36%) support the mission. Strong opposition to the war remains highest in Quebec (48%) while Albertans (19%) and Atlantic Canadians (18%) are more likely to strongly support the mission.

December 7, 2010

American Views on Afghanistan

Via Angus Reid, a new survey on U.S. views on the Afghan war:

Americans remain divided on their country’s military deployment in Afghanistan, and almost half erroneously assume that more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives in the conflict, a new Angus Reid Public Opinion poll has found....

The proportion of people in the United States who think that engaging the military in Afghanistan was a mistake stands at 38 per cent, six points higher than in April and June. Two-in-five Americans (40%, +3) believe that that the U.S. did the right thing in sending soldiers to Afghanistan.

More than half of respondents (54%, +3) claim that they do not know what war in Afghanistan is all about, whereas 46 per cent (-3) say they do.

See the full results here.

December 3, 2010

The Tangled Web

The United States will agree to a demand by Kyrgyz officials that their impoverished country be given a share of lucrative fuel contracts for a critical transit hub here for troops headed to Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday.

Clinton's announcement, made during a five-hour visit to the fragile Central Asian democracy, appeared designed to assuage growing anger over Pentagon contracts that have been worth about $3 billion over eight years to Mina Corp. and Red Star Enterprises, a secretive business group registered in Gibraltar.

The new arrangement should also please Russia, which is expected to play a big - and profitable - role. Gazpromneft, part of Russia's state-controlled energy giant Gazprom, will probably supply much of the jet fuel.

Moscow has frequently used Gazprom to further its political and strategic goals, but the Obama administration is gambling that its efforts to "reset" relations with Russia - and the prospect of large profits for Gazprom - will help ensure that jet fuel keeps flowing to the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, known as the Manas Transit Center. - Washington Post

Now the specifics of this seem rather pragmatic - if everyone gets to wet their whistle, no one complains. But it's worth pondering the contortions that U.S. policy must endure all so that we can stop under 100 al-Qaeda fighters from maybe someday crossing into Afghanistan.

New Weapon Hits Afghanistan

The Army is deploying its new XM-25 a "smart rifle" in its efforts to pare back the Taliban insurgency:

The Pentagon has rolled out prototypes of its first-ever programmable "smart" grenade launcher, a shoulder-fired weapon that uses microchipped ammunition to target and kill the enemy, even when the enemy is hidden behind walls or other cover....

The gun fires 25mm air-bursting shells up to 2,300 feet, well past the range of most rifles used by today's soldiers, and programs them to explode at a precise distance, allowing troops to neutralise insurgents hiding behind walls, rocks or trenches or inside buildings.

The Army is calling it a "game changer" which is unlikely given that killing the Taliban is something we've been good at for quite some time, with little impact on Afghanistan's overall stability and coherence.

December 1, 2010

Afghanistan & Indian Leadership

Our latest Gallup/RCW top five list looks at the countries who most approve of India's leadership. While the top five countries are clustered in Africa, Afghanistan comes in at number 6 (not in our survey but in the full Gallup survey on India here). It's not surprising, given the nearly $1.2 billion in aid that India has provided to the country after the U.S. invasion, but it is a reminder of why Pakistan, despite being on the receiving end of even more American generosity, is consistently undermining U.S. goals in Afghanistan.

November 29, 2010

U.S. Less Pessimistic About Afghan War


So says Gallup:

Forty-five percent say things are going well for the U.S. there, the highest percentage since July 2009, and one of the more positive evaluations in the last four years. Still, the majority of 54% believe things are going badly for the U.S....

More generally, 44% of Americans say they approve and 49% disapprove of the way Obama is handling the situation in Afghanistan. That is up from 36% approval in late July/early August, when support for the war dropped after there were leaks of classified military documents detailing some troubling accounts of the U.S. conduct of the war on an Internet site called WikiLeaks. But Obama's Afghanistan approval rating is down slightly from the 48% registered in February, the first measurement after Obama's new Afghanistan policy was announced.

November 27, 2010

The Next WikiLeak

Via Mike Allen:

ADMINISTRATION PREPARES FOR WIKIDUMP OF STATE DEPT. CABLES, possibly Sunday – Could be seven times the October release – Jim Miklaszewski, on “NBC Nightly News”: “U.S. officials tell NBC News that the upcoming document release from the website WikiLeaks contains top secret information so damaging it could threaten Senate ratification of the START nuclear arms control treaty with the Russians. According to the officials, the information contained in classified State Department cables reveals secrets behind the START negotiations and embarrassing claims against Russian leadership – information that could provide ammunition to Republican opponents of the treaty on Capitol Hill. …. There’s also serious concern that some of the leaks could threaten U.S. counterterrorism operations on two fronts, Afghanistan and Yemen. In Afghanistan, where President Hamid Karzai has already come under fire for Afghan corruption and questions about his mental stability, U.S. officials say the secret cables reveal new and even more embarrassing claims about his personality and private life. Perhaps more troublesome, the leaks reportedly include top secret information about U.S. military and intelligence operations against al Qaeda in Yemen and some critical dispatches about Yemen’s President Saleh.”

November 24, 2010

A Taliban Peace

My first reaction to hearing that the Taliban had apparently sent out an imposter to negotiate with NATO over a peace settlement was that it poured a decent amount of cold water over those who think that a "political settlement" is really possible. If the Taliban really wanted to explore a deal, they wouldn't be duping us. Michael Cohen sees it differently:

What is lacking is a recognition that the Taliban (who are certainly bad guys) will likely have a long-term role to play in Afghanistan's future - and that this is something that all sides in the conflict, particularly the US, are going to have to accept. Now in an ideal world, the Taliban wouldn't play much of any role in Afghanistan's future - but we don't live in an ideal world and we are far past the point where it's even possible for the US to dictate the terms of Afghanistan's future. We have neither the time nor the resources nor the inclination nor the knowledge to do such a thing.

I agree with the last part - about time and resources - but I'm not sure putting our faith in a political settlement is really feasible at this point. A political settlement implies that there's going to be some kind of agreed-upon equilibrium in the country, even if that means the Taliban rule over portions of the country. Is that likely, given that we can't even sit down with, you know, actual Taliban? How can you even discuss the contours of post-war settlement if your interlocutors aren't real?

UPDATE: Thinking a bit more about this, it often seems that the term "political settlement" serves the same totemic function for progressives that the word "victory" does for conservatives - an aspirational goal that starts to fall apart the minute it's subjected to serious scrutiny. What's frequently meant by the term political settlement is to have U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan and let the chips fall where they may. But rather than defend that argument, it's couched in terms that make it more palatable to the public.

After all, it's not like both Bush and Obama administrations have not been seeking a political settlement or actively engaging regional stakeholders. It's just that those regional stakeholders have conflicting ideas for what an ideal post-war Afghanistan looks like and so those efforts tend to run aground.

At root, both the case for "victory" and the case for a "political settlement" in Afghanistan rest on a kind of evasiveness about the truly limited ability of the U.S. to orchestrate the fates of millions of people and multiple governments half a world away. Obviously, both outcomes are possible. The U.S. has won military victories before just as it has played a role in forging political settlements between warring parties. But in the case of Afghanistan what we seem to have among elite opinion is a group that wants to stay and a group that wants to leave, and both are groping for whatever arguments buttress that case.

November 19, 2010

Counterinsurgency 101

“Why do you have to blow up so many of our fields and homes?” a farmer from the Arghandab district asked a top NATO general at a recent community meeting.

Although military officials are apologetic in public, they maintain privately that the tactic has a benefit beyond the elimination of insurgent bombs. By making people travel to the district governor’s office to submit a claim for damaged property, “in effect, you’re connecting the government to the people,” the senior officer said. - Washington Post

November 18, 2010

Karzai's Pandering


John Guardiano thinks that Hamid Karzai's criticisms of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan isn't terribly significant because Karzai is a "politician pandering to both his domestic political base and his political paymasters in Washington."

I'm not sure how this is supposed to ease people's concerns. In fact, the way in which Mr. Karzai chooses to pander to his domestic base is precisely what's alarming. Notice what Karzai thinks will sell to the Afghans. It's not "I'm hoping Petraeus helps hunt down and destroy the last of the Taliban." It's pointed criticisms of American and NATO forces. Guardiano is right to note that Karzai is simply playing politics, but in this case the politics of Afghanistan cut in favor of trashing the U.S. and NATO. Which is something of a problem.

(AP Photo)

Nation Building in Afghanistan


Supporters of nation building in Afghanistan frequently argue that such a strategy was never actually tried during the Bush years and that attempting to do strictly "counter-terrorism" operations in the country would just repeat the mistakes of the Bush administration. This defense never struck me as very plausible, because while the Bush administration may have under-resourced their nation building effort, they had more ambitious goals for Afghanistan than simply driving out al-Qaeda.

This is now confirmed by none other than President Bush himself:

In his memoir, one chapter of which is devoted to Afghanistan, Bush writes that "Afghanistan was the ultimate nation building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better. We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society," because "a democratic Afghanistan would be a hopeful alternative to the vision of the extremists."

It's impossible to understand why the U.S. has found it so difficult to achieve 'victory' in either Iraq or Afghanistan without understanding the role that lofty and unachievable goals have played in bogging us down.

(AP Photo)

November 15, 2010

Who's Running Afghanistan?


Over the weekend, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave an interview to the Washington Post where he decried American military raids in the country. Today, the Post reports that he's been scolded by General Petraeus:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the coalition military commander in Afghanistan, warned Afghan officials Sunday that President Hamid Karzai's latest public criticism of U.S. strategy threatens to seriously undermine progress in the war and risks making Petraeus's own position "untenable," according to Afghan and U.S. officials.

Officials said Petraeus expressed "astonishment and disappointment" with Karzai's call, in a Saturday interview with The Washington Post, to "reduce military operations" and end U.S. Special Operations raids in southern Afghanistan that coalition officials said have killed or captured hundreds of Taliban commanders in recent months.

Then there's this, from an unnamed NATO official:

"I think it's [Karzai's] directness that really sticks in the craw," another NATO official said. "He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan."

"It's pretty clear that you no longer have a reliable partner in Kabul," the official added. "I think we tried to paper it over with [Karzai's] Washington visit" in May. "But the wheels have becoming looser and looser . . . since that."

What do Western officials expect to happen when they turn things over to Karzai in 2011, 2014 or whenever?

(AP Photo)

November 11, 2010

Musharraf Attempts a Comeback


There was an interesting event yesterday on Capitol Hill with former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, hosted (oddly) by former Republican Senator Rick Santorum and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The former general and former coup architect seems hellbent on a return to political leadership, and took the time to, among other things, criticize President Obama for visiting India but not Pakistan on his recent four-nation trip:

"One would have preferred that he should have gone to Pakistan to give due importance to Pakistan, which is fighting extremism and terrorism in a lead role and being a strategic partner with the US on this issue," the Daily Times quoted Musharraf, as saying.

The former President further said that Obama's support of India's bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would not be viewed favorably in Pakistan.

Musharraf also emphasized that the ongoing drone strikes in Pakistan risk destabilizing the country.

"I don't think Pakistan is the problem, but there is no doubt there is terrorism and extremism. The centre of gravity of all of this is Afghanistan. Pakistan is the victim of all this. We need to see Pakistan sympathetically," Musharraf said.

While he had some other critiques for India, Musharraf saved some of his toughest criticism for the question and answer period, where he bristled at our questions regarding his prior tenure - particularly those questions regarding Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency. "Three hundred ISI operatives have died, but we think they are cooperating?" he said, without denying that much if not all of the ISI supports the Taliban. In another DC appearance, he called for slow-playing any restrictions on the radical Islamic group Lashkar-e-Taiba:

"You can't rock the boat so much that the boat capsizes," Musharraf, a military ruler who stepped down in 2008 and is attempting a political comeback, said at the Atlantic Council think-tank in Washington.

"While these things have to be done, allow piecemeal, gradual action through a well thought-out strategy which does not disturb the entire law and order situation in Pakistan," Musharraf said.

Musharraf acknowledged that Lashkar-e-Taiba and like-minded groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad were "involved in terrorism in Pakistan" but said they have been "very popular" for fighting Indian rule in divided Kashmir.

"Since they were going to Kashmir and fighting the Indian army, it went along with the psyche of the people of Pakistan -- with everyone," Musharraf said.

There are certainly countries that promote men like Musharraf, and it's possible he could mount a political comeback - but so few are able to apply authoritarianism correctly, if there is such a thing. If Musharraf has no plans to push back against these internal forces, his usefulness to America seems minor at best. When nearly every Pakistan province currently has an active separatist movement, effectively turning a nation-state into a conglomeration of the ISI and a core group of Pakistani-nationalist elites, it is perhaps time to ask whether Pakistan would be better served by just becoming part of India.

In all seriousness, I also asked what Musharraf thought would happen if the Americans leave Afghanistan as scheduled in 2011. He dodged the question, maintaining that it would be a positive development as long as their goals on the ground were met. He also made sure to refer people to his Facebook page, where he has hundreds of thousands of fans.

(AP Photo)

November 10, 2010

No Plan B


It's difficult to know what to make of this news:

A White House review of President Obama's Afghanistan strategy next month will judge "how this current approach is working" but will not suggest alternatives if aspects of the policy are found to be failing, a senior administration official said Tuesday.
So if a policy is deemed to be failing in Afghanistan, the administration plans to continue that policy regardless?

(AP Photo)

November 9, 2010

Jacksonians & Afghanistan

Michael Gerson sees "Jacksonian" Republicans making trouble for President Obama's foreign policy:

Even without a developed tea party foreign policy, the center of gravity on Capitol Hill is likely to shift in a Jacksonian direction. Historian Walter Russell Mead describes this potent, populist foreign policy tradition as "an instinct rather than an ideology." Today's Jacksonians believe in a strong military, assertively employed to defend American interests. They are skeptical of international law and international institutions, which are viewed as threats to American sovereignty and freedom of action. Jacksonians are generally dismissive of idealistic global objectives, such as a world free from nuclear weapons. Instead, they are heavily armed realists, convinced that America operates in an irredeemably hostile world. In particular, according to Mead, Jacksonians believe in wars that end with the unconditional surrender of an enemy, instead of "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations."

But then he writes:

But the largest test case will be Afghanistan. Here Obama faces a rare challenge. His base of support for the Afghan War lies mainly in the opposing party, making Republican attitudes toward the war decisive. As Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of American troops approaches, any hint of civilian-military divisions on strategy could dramatically erode Republican support. Jacksonians like to win wars. But if Obama appears reluctant, they could easily turn against a war the president does not seem determined to win.

This doesn't make sense. In the prior graf, Gerson insists Jacksonians don't like "multilateral, limited warfare or peacekeeping operations." That's precisely what we're doing in Afghanistan. If anything, a spike in Jacksonian sentiment would lead to an erosion in support for an open-ended commitment to nation-building in Afghanistan, which is what the conservative defense establishment believes is necessary to secure American interests.

Indeed, a Jacksonian turn in the GOP would probably horrify Gerson who, along with his former boss, President Bush, is a purveyor of "idealistic global objectives" such as ridding the world of tyranny.

Afghanistan: View from the Ground


The Asia Foundation has released a comprehensive survey of Afghan public opinion. Some key findings:

In 2010, 47% of respondents say that the country is moving in the right direction.

Insecurity (including attacks, violence and terrorism) is also identifed as the biggest problem in Afghanistan by over a third of respondents (37%), particularly in the South East (51%), West (43%) and South West (42%).

Unemployment remains the second biggest problem, mentioned by 28% of respondents. Corruption is identified by 27% of respondents making it the third biggest problem in 2010, and marking a significant increase from 2009 when it was mentioned by 17%. A poor economy
(11%), lack of education (11%) and poverty (10%) also continue to be identified amongst Afghanistan’s biggest problems.

Support for the Government’s approach for negotiation and reintegration of armed opposition groups is significantly higher in 2010 than in 2009. Eighty three percent of respondents support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements, compared to 71% in 2009. Support is highest in the East (89%), South East (85%) and North West (85%) and lowest in the Central/Hazarajat region (78%).

Full survey here. (pdf)

November 3, 2010

Will Congress Support America's Wars?


Kori Schake believes the Obama administration will find at least some support for its war policies in the newly empowered GOP:

But the president is not going to carry liberal Democrats on the wars whether or not he sticks to his politically-driven 2011 drawdown. "Ending combat operations" in Iraq has not been the improvement in security the president promised, as Tuesday's bombings sadly illustrate, and the president can ill afford such an outcome in "the good war." Liberal disaffection was less a problem for Democrats than the stampede of independents to the right; moderating his timeline to achieve the objectives of the war would likely appeal to them.

I'm not so sure that's the case. The war in Iraq has been deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans for years now, including independents. Support for the war in Afghanistan is similarly declining and there's no indication that independents would welcome a presidential commitment to never leave the country victory.

Indeed, while the conservative defense establishment remains enthusiastic about the prospect of transferring more American wealth to Hamid Karzai and his various hangers-on, any serious effort to repair the American balance sheet will have to take a cold, hard look at the scope of the commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps that's why the GOP's Pledge to America eschewed any high-sounding rhetoric about winning in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

October 27, 2010

Ask Foreign Affairs

Foreign Affairs is hosting a Q&A with their editor Gideon Rose on Afghanistan and his new book: How Wars End. If you'd like to submit a question to Rose, you can email us at: with "Foreign Affairs Q&A" in the subject. We'll select the best questions to send along to Foreign Affairs.

October 26, 2010

Most Corrupt Countries in the World

Transparency International has released their 2010 corruption perception index. The most corrupt country in the world is Somalia, followed by Myanmar, Afghanistan and Iraq. That doesn't exactly reflect well on U.S. efforts. Incidentally, the U.S. is tied for 22nd with Belgium. And the least corrupt country: it's a three-way tie between Denmark, New Zealand and Singapore.

British Views on Afghan War


As with Canada, support for the Afghanistan war in the United Kingdom is cratering, with opposition to the war reaching its highest point in a new Angus Reid survey:

This month, 32 per cent of respondents (down one point since August) support the military operation involving UK soldiers in Afghanistan, while 60 per cent are opposed (up three points).

Three-in-ten Britons (60%, +6) believe the country made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan. Half of respondents (50%, +4) claim to have a clear idea of what the war in Afghanistan is about.

When asked about what they believe will be the most likely outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, only eight per cent of Britons predict a clear victory by U.S. and allied forces over the Taliban, and 31 per cent foresee a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and allied strength that gives the Taliban a small role in the Afghan government.

In addition, one-in-five respondents (20%) expect a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and allied weakness that gives the Taliban a significant role in the Afghan government, and 11 per cent believe the Taliban will ultimately defeat the U.S. and allied forces.

Full results here. (pdf)

(AP Photo)

October 25, 2010

Canadian Views on Afghanistan

According to Angus Reid, Canadian support for the mission in Afghanistan has reached a new low:

In the online survey of a representative national sample of 1,009 Canadian adults, just over a third of respondents (35%, -4 since August) support the military operation involving Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan—the lowest level recorded over the past two years. More than half of respondents (55%, +2) oppose the war.

The level of “strong opposition” to the war outranks the level of “strong support” by a 3-to-1 margin (34% to 11%). Practically half of Quebecers (49%) say they “strongly oppose” the operation.

Almost half of Canadians (47%, -4) think Canada made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan, while one third (32%, -6) believe it was the right thing to do. The only area where a plurality of respondents stands by Canada’s decision is Alberta (43% to 38%). Across the country, 53 percent of respondents feel that they have a clear idea of what the war in Afghanistan is all about.

There was little fluctuation on the question related to the outcome of the war. More than a quarter of respondents (27%) expect to see a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and NATO strength that gives the Taliban a small role in the Afghan government.

Only six per cent foresee a clear victory by U.S. and NATO forces over the Taliban, 15 per cent believe that the Taliban will play a significant role in Afghanistan after the war is over, and the same proportion (15%) think that U.S. and NATO forces will ultimately be defeated.

Full results here. (pdf)

October 19, 2010

Obama's Pakistan Charm Offensive


Looks like we won't be "shorting" Pakistan anytime soon:

As Pakistani civilian and military leaders arrive here this week for high-level meetings, the Obama administration will begin trying to mend a relationship badly damaged by the American military’s tough new stance in the region.

Among the sweeteners on the table will be a multiyear security pact with Pakistan, complete with more reliable military aid — something the Pakistani military has long sought to complement the five-year, $7.5 billion package of nonmilitary aid approved by Congress last year. The administration will also discuss how to channel money to help Pakistan rebuild after its ruinous flood.

But the American gestures come at a time of fraying patience on the part of the Obama administration, and they will carry a familiar warning, a senior American official said: if Pakistan does not intensify its efforts to crack down on militants hiding out in the tribal areas of North Waziristan, or if another terrorist plot against the United States were to emanate from Pakistani soil, the administration would find it hard to persuade Congress or the American public to keep supporting the country.

As with concerns that America is going to "abandon" Europe because of its defense cuts, this is an empty threat. As long as bin Laden and the rump elements of al-Qaeda's leadership are in Pakistan and as long as the U.S. is working to stabilize Afghanistan, we are going to need to have some kind of working relationship with Pakistan that involves transferring American tax dollars to its military. I suppose we need to engage in a song and dance about this, but it's not going to change the basic reality of the situation.

(AP Photo)

October 18, 2010

The Great Game 2.0

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on the foreign policy of Imperial Britain in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but what little I know of it makes me dubious of this argument from Thomas Barnett and, by extension, Robert Kaplan:

Where do Afghanistan and Pakistan fit into this "new Great Game," as Kaplan dubs it? They stand between, on the one hand, India and China and, on the other, all the energy that pair of rising behemoths needs to access in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. So the current effort in Afghanistan is not a case of America imposing globalization's connectivity on places where it was never meant to go. Instead, it represents -- like in Iraq -- another situation where the U.S. is making dangerous places just safe enough for Asian powers to access much-needed energy and mineral resources.

As I understood it, Britain waged its "Great Game" against Russia for influence in Central Asia and the outskirts of the Ottaman Empire because Britain wanted to protect the trade routes it had between England and India. In other words, there was a clear strategic rationale for why Britain played the Great Game and the aim was to benefit Britain. Barnett argues that the U.S. should continue nation building in Afghanistan on behalf of India and China. But what's in it for the United States?

Barnett argues that we'd be a "stabilizer" between two rising powers, but one has to wonder how much of a role Western troops fighting and dying in Afghanistan should really play in that balancing effort.

The Benefits of Off-Shore Balancing


By Robert Pape

Robert A. Pape is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago specializing in international security affairs. He currently serves as Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism. This analysis first appeared on the CPOST blog.

Kori Schake, a valuable participant in our Capitol Hill conference on “Cutting the Fuse,” raises a number of important issues with the policy of off-shore balancing. I am delighted to respond and believe our exchange is an example of thoughtful thinking about how to move beyond the War on Terror.

Schake is right that U.S. policy makers are well-meaning; sending our ground troops overseas to advance our interests. But she overlooks how our ground forces often - and inadvertently - produce the opposite of what they intend: more anti-American terrorists than they kill. In 2000, before the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 20 suicide attacks around the world and one (against the USS Cole) was anti-American. In the last 12 months, by comparison, 300 suicide attacks have occurred and over 270 were anti-American. We simply must face the reality - no matter how well-intentioned, our current war on terror is not serving American interests.

Schake is also right that, once we know that nearly all suicide terrorism occurs in response to military occupations by democracies, it is perfectly reasonable to ask "why some occupations and not others?" And, this has been a core element of my research, as readers will see in Chapter 1 of Cutting the Fuse and in my 2008 article in the American Political Science Review, among other publications.

In a nutshell, two factors matter.

The first is social distance between occupier and occupied, because the wider the social distance, the more the occupied community may fear losing its way of life. Although other differences may matter, research shows that occupations are especially likely to escalate to suicide terrorism when there is a difference between the predominant religion of the occupier and the predominant relation of the occupied.

Religious difference matters not because some religions are predisposed to suicide attack - indeed, there are religious differences even in purely secular suicide attack campaigns, such as the LTTE (Hindu) against the Sinhalese (Buddhists).

Rather, religious differences matter because it enables terrorist leaders to claim that the occupier is motivated by a religious agenda that can scare both secular and religious members of a local community – which is why bin Laden never misses an opportunity to describe U.S. occupiers as “Crusaders” – motivated by a Christian agenda to convert Muslims to Christianity, steal Muslim oil and resources, and change the local population’s way of life whether they liked it or not.

This first factor of religious difference explains why some occupations escalate to suicide terrorism, but not others – not only in recent times, but also in the past – such as why the Japanese started kamikaze attacks in October 1944 to defend their home islands from U.S. occupation, while the Germans did not.

The second factor is prior rebellion. Suicide terrorism is typically a strategy of last resort, often used by weak actors when other, non-suicide methods of resistance to occupation fail. This is why we see suicide attack campaigns so often evolve from ordinary terrorist or guerrilla campaigns, as in the cases of Israel and Palestine, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, etc. So, if the South Koreans ever began to resist American military presence in a serious way, this would be more worrisome than it may at first appear.

On the next issue she raises, Schake is simply wrong that “an offshore balancing approach means that we will not be engaged with military forces on the ground.” As readers will see in throughout my book, working with local allies is a core element of off-shore balancing. And, America has used the strategy of off-shore balancing to great benefit numerous times and often in concert with local allies - in the Persian Gulf in the 1970s and 1980s, in 1990 to kick Saddam out of Kuwait and in 2001 to topple the Taliban (it controlled 90 percent of Afghanistan and 50 U.S. troops, U.S. air and naval power, and U.S. economic and political support for the Northern Alliance kicked them and al-Qaeda out of the country!).

Finally, I agree that replacing mass boots with mass drones would be a mistake - since vast numbers of air strikes could inflict more than enough collateral damage to incite terrorism in response - which is exactly what Cutting the Fuse explains, and it's also why off-shore balancing means responding with stand-off military forces against significant size terrorist camps like Tarnak Farms (a military base larger than the Pentagon), and not every third ranking cadre in individual houses in Quetta, where more selective or even non-military means may well be more effective.

I hope Ms. Schake will have an opportunity to read Cutting the Fuse and to consider the research behind it. Governor Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton - both heads of the 9/11 Commission - have, as did Thomas Schelling (Nobel laureate in Economics) and Adm. Gary Roughhead (the current Chief of Naval Operations). They too raised the issues Schake did (and more), and found convincing answers in the book.

(AP Photo)

If Not Off-Shore Balancing, Then What?

Daniel Larison picks up on the question of American policy and terrorism, arguing that Robert Pape's preferred "off-shore" strategy won't be very effective at quelling radicalism:

Long-term occupation is one form of this, but we would be foolish to think that we can routinely bomb another country without generating the same violent reaction. Instead of trying to force withdrawal, terrorist attacks would have the cessation of attacks as their goal. It is one thing to argue that we should not have a military presence in Afghanistan because it feeds the instability and violence the government is presumably trying to reduce, but it is quite another to claim that the U.S. can remove its forces from a country, reserve the right to continue attacking it at will, and that this still counts as a real withdrawal. The trouble here is that Pape seems not to have taken his own claims about the causes of terrorism as seriously as he should, which has given Schake an opportunity to dismiss his important and valid claims along with his more questionable recommendations.

I think this correct and there seems to be confirmation of this fact in the Pakistani tribal regions where the U.S. is essentially conducting the kind of covert battle that Pape seems to endorse for Afghanistan. But this raises an important question: if a large-footprint occupation is out and if a counter-terrorist campaign of the kind being waged in Pakistan is deemed just as radicalizing, what's left?

October 16, 2010

U.S. Views on Afghanistan

Via Rasmussen Reports:

A plurality of voters nationwide continues to believe the U.S. situation in Afghanistan will get worse in the next six months.

A new Rasmussen Reports telephone survey of Likely Voters finds that 46% feel this way, while only 22% believe the situation will get better. Another 22% think the situation will remain about the same as it is now.

These figures have improved slightly from last month, when only 18% felt the situation would get better and 48% thought the opposite.

Twenty-seven percent (27%) of voters believe all U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, a finding that has remained largely unchanged since last November.

Although combat in Iraq officially ended, a plurality (37%) thinks that, over the next six months, the situation there will get worse. Twenty-eight percent (28%) think it will get better, and nearly as many (26%) think the situation will stay the same as it is now.

October 11, 2010

Where Are the Pakistan Hawks?


There's been a growing realization in the U.S. that Pakistan is ultimately not going to change what it views as its fundamental national interests to suit Washington's desire to shore-up a (relatively) Taliban-free Afghanistan. This leaves the U.S. with two basic options. The first is to change the tone of its relationship with Pakistan, by threatening or actually cutting off U.S. aid and perhaps even using military force more overtly in the tribal region. This option - as outlined here a bit by Steven Metz - essentially argues that Pakistan better start fearing the U.S. more than India.

The second option would be to accept that some Pakistan/Taliban influence inside Afghanistan is inevitable and cut some kind of deal with the Taliban, which appears to be what the administration is doing.

The odd thing to note about this is how so few self-styled hawks have thus far come out in favor of the first option. During the Iraq war, we frequently heard demands to bomb Iran to disrupt its support for terrorists attacking U.S. troops. But Pakistani support for lethal insurgent groups in Afghanistan is similarly pervasive.

Indeed, there's a vast disconnect between how self-styled hawks treat Iran and Pakistan. Up and down the line Pakistan has been the more egregious transgressor on the things hawks say they care about: from developing nuclear weapons, proliferating nuclear weapons, harboring, training and sponsoring Islamist terrorist networks, supporting (however indirectly) attacks on U.S. troops in Afghanistan, undermining America's regional goals, attacking a democratic ally, to enduring bouts of military dictatorship and on and on. Yet when it comes time for threats and bellicosity, the hawks get positively nuanced when dealing with Pakistan.

Mind you, that's not a bad thing. It's just a bit odd.

October 7, 2010

Will Obama Get Tough on Pakistan?

Tom Ricks thinks the administration's patience has run dry and that a "rollup of ISI agents in Afghanistan" will commence soon. The telltale signs:

This would be done quietly, if possible, so the public signs would be reactions such as the kidnapping of Indian officials in Afghanistan, or bombing the Indian embassy again....

Shorting Pakistan is kind of a no-brainer: In the long one, which is the better ally to have, India or Pakistan?

Yes, but if Pakistan is uncooperative now, how much less so will they be after they're shorted?

Progress and Muslim Women in Afghanistan


It was on this day in 2001 that the United States and Britain launched Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, which seems as proper a time as any to note an interesting contrast concerning our continuing conversation about the moderation of the Muslim world. This contrast comes from the Council on Foreign Relations transcript of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak's remarks last week, where he repeated some of his prior calls for a movement of the moderates. But what stood out to me is this interesting story, which he notes in passing:

Malaysia is also a country that can play our part in terms of providing some leadership role in global affairs. For example, as part and parcel of the new engagement with the United States, we have decided that we should contribute in a positive way by being present in Afghanistan, because Malaysia has -- or Malaysia is one of the very few countries in the world that has something unique that other countries don't have: We can provide female Muslim doctors. That is much needed in Afghanistan, a society like Afghanistan.

So I promised President Obama that I would do it. And on the invitation of the Afghanistan government, as this is part of our help to reconstruct Afghanistan, in two weeks' time, the doctors will be in Afghanistan.

This is obviously a laudable step for Malaysia and the women involved. It's also a positive sign in terms of paired U.S.-Malaysian security interests in Afghanistan (though of course, the medical mission is headed there at the request of the Afghan government), which will hopefully continue. Najib spoke to several writers during his time in New York, including myself, and while a longer piece will come shortly concerning his responses to several questions on security and economic policy, his remarks on this mission are worth sharing in full:

I committed to agreeing that we should have a presence in Afghanistan, and the advance party is already in Afghanistan -- the main body will be there by the middle of October, because we had to construct accommodations for them.

We decided to be part of the reconstruction in Afghanistan, specifically sending a medical team, because we have one thing very few countries in the world can provide: Muslim women doctors.

In a very conservative society there, the women would rather be treated by Muslim women doctors, and Malaysia is one of the very few countries that can provide this. We'll be sending one doctor, one dentist, and five medical orderlies now and more as part of a larger contingent. And that's a very good start I think...

There's a need for us to be part of the global community in addressing these concerns, and this is the advantage of where Malaysia is positioned, being a moderate Muslim nation, to lend support to a variety of global initiatives.

This is, indeed, a good start. Yet at the same time, it's a sign of how much the Muslim world in general lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to the plight of women. Contrast the plight of Muslim women in Afghanistan - an area where some small progress was made in the past several years, and much is now at risk - with the experience of women of the same faith in Malaysia, according to Najib's answer to Brooks Entwistle of Goldman Sachs:

QUESTIONER: Thank you very much. Brooks Entwistle, Goldman Sachs, based in India, in Mumbai. We as a firm were doing for many years in Malaysia; in fact, just opened a KL office, which we're delighted about.

My question today is about the role of women. You mentioned doctors from Malaysia to Afghanistan. There was a very interesting piece this week in the Herald Tribune on women leadership in Islamic finance and chairing some of the major banks. And I'd ask you just to comment further on that topic, but just more specifically the role of women in other leadership roles in Malaysia, and how that can play a leadership role in the Muslim world.

NAJIB: I would consider Malaysia in the forefront. In fact, the male species feels rather threatened in Malaysia now. If you look in terms of the entrance to university, 62 percent of undergraduates are women in Malaysia. I don't think any other Muslim or even non-Muslim country has that kind of record.

And major financial and economic ministries and agencies are held by women in Malaysia. Of course, the governor of central bank, our economic union, the top echelon of the Ministry of Finance, Treasury, they are all women. So women play a big part in Malaysia.

And in fact, we want more women as part of the labor force in Malaysia, I think, and also a greater role for women in Malaysia. And we have been wanting to have 30 percent of women to hold strategic and decision-making positions in the public and private sector. I hope we can -- we can achieve that in the near future.

The fact that Malaysia is at the forefront of women's rights in the Muslim world is of course a good thing for them. Yet one hopes that other notes of progress can be achieved under other Islamic regimes - and hopefully through softer methods, without the cost in lives and treasure of prolonged military engagement. The day when Afghanistan has no need for Malaysia's Muslim women doctors, because they have plenty of their own, will be a good one for all involved.

(AP Photo)

October 6, 2010

Dealing with Pakistan


Max Boot wrestles with the Pakistan challenge:

The Obama administration has gotten slightly more muscular in its approach by stepping up drone strikes — a good idea. But at the same time, the president has made it harder to woo Pakistan because he has given credence to the notion that we are on our way out of Afghanistan. If that’s in fact the case — and I don’t believe it is — then Pakistan has no choice but to look after its own interests, and in the view of the Pakistani military, that means supporting jihadist proxy forces such as the Taliban. There is probably no way to wean the Pakistanis entirely off this strategy in the foreseeable future, but at least if Obama were to clarify his muddled rhetoric regarding a deadline for withdrawal and make it clear that the U.S. is in the region for the long term, he may change the incentive structure for the Pakistani officer corps and make it more palatable for them to take tougher action against terrorist groups, secure in the knowledge that we will not leave them in the lurch.

I think this overlooks a critical issue. It's not just America's wavering long-term commitment to Afghanistan that's making Pakistan hedge its bets with the Taliban - it's India's investment inside Afghanistan ($1.2 billion and counting). In fact, the more the U.S. stays and (in theory) stabilizes the country, the more hospitable Afghanistan will become to increased Indian investment and influence. And if past is prologue, Pakistan is not going look kindly on that development as it will be perceived as encirclement.

The length of time the U.S. stays, or says it will stay, inside Afghanistan isn't really going to matter much. The only way you can change Pakistan's calculus with respect to Afghanistan is to change their calculus with respect to India. And good luck with that.

(AP Photo)

Drones and Radicalization


Glenn Greenwald argues that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan are counter-productive, approvingly noting a Jim White post claiming that "Drone Strikes Provoke Terrorists Who Provoke More Drone Strikes." Greenwald writes:

What a surprise: bombing Muslims more and more causes more and more Muslims to want to bomb the countries responsible. That, of course, has long been the perverse "logic" driving the War on Terror. The very idea that we're going to reduce Terrorism by more intensively bombing more Muslim countries is one of the most patently absurd, self-contradicting premises that exists. It's exactly like announcing that the cure for lung cancer is to quadruple the number of cigarettes one smokes each day. But that's been the core premise (at least the stated one) of our foreign policy for the last decade: we're going to stop Terrorism by doing more and more of exactly the things that cause it (and see this very good Economist article on the ease with which drones allow a nation's leaders to pretend to its citizenry that they are not really at war -- as we're doing with Pakistan).

I think this is a bit glib, but the New America Foundation recently conducted an extensive poll in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) where U.S. drone strikes occur and the findings do corroborate this dynamic, to a degree. What they found is that FATA residents overwhelmingly opposed U.S. military action and supported attacks against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the majority were not supportive of the Taliban or al-Qaeda and indeed supported the Pakistani army's attacks on both groups. (which, presumably, involve bombings and killings). A large majority of FATA residents also said that suicide attacks against Pakistani police and army were never justified.

But the terror threat is more diffuse and complex than angered Pakistanis emerging from the ruin of their bombed-out homes in the tribal area to seek revenge against the West. Is Islamic solidarity really sufficient to explain why an Algerian, for instance, would wish to slaughter civilians in Europe on behalf of Pakistani tribesman?

(AP Photo)

September 27, 2010

Is Petraeus Making Blowback Respectable?


One of the arguments that runs through the Obama administration's Afghan strategy debate (as recounted by Bob Woodward) is the idea, advanced by the U.S. military, that killing Afghans in pursuit of al-Qaeda and the Taliban is counterproductive without a broader effort to assuage their grievances and improve their country :

At the Nov. 11 meeting in which Obama expressed his frustration, Petraeus cited the war game as evidence that the hybrid option would not work.

It would alienate the Afghan people whom U.S. forces should be protecting, he said. "You start going out tromping around, disrupting the enemy, and you're making a lot of enemies. . . . So what have you accomplished?"

This makes sense. If you're just dropping bombs and assassinating people in a country without regard for much else, they're going to be resentful and seek retaliation. But why is this understanding never advanced to the strategic level? The terrorist threat to the U.S. is global. If we're so solicitous of Afghan civilians that we're willing to risk over 100,000 U.S. and NATO troops and invest billions of dollars into the country to guard against blow back, shouldn't we be considering the ramifications of U.S. policies elsewhere?

(AP Photo)

Drones Keeping Pakistanis Awake

According to a report in the China-owned Xinhau newspaper, Pakistanis living in the tribal zone have begun taking sedatives to help them sleep through all the drone attacks. Like so much about the quasi-secretive drone campaign, it's hard to tell if this is true or not.... but it doesn't sound surprising.

September 24, 2010

Thought for the Day

Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn't be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of more ambitious -- if not utterly misguided -- objectives that Washington could have picked....

The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. (That assumes, of course, that we aren't using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose). We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals -- as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans -- when we use our power judiciously and fairly. And we've often done a pretty fair job -- in concert with others -- at encouraging intelligent liberalization of the world economy. The United States is not very good at governing foreign societies, especially when the local inhabitants don't want us there and when we have little understanding of how they work. And if we keep trying to do this sort of thing, we're likely to look inept far more often than we look effective. - Stephen Walt

September 23, 2010

What About Victory in Afghanistan?

The leaked copy of the GOP's "Pledge to America" has absolutely nothing to say about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less any of the usual boilerplate about victory. Curious, no?

September 22, 2010

Absorbing Terrorist Attacks


Marc Theissen is outraged that President Obama reportedly said that the U.S. could "absorb a terrorist attack."

These are stunningly complacent words from the man responsible for stopping such a terrorist attack. Obama uttered them last July, after America suffered two near-misses—the failed attacks on Christmas Day and in Times Square. Rather than serving as a wake-up call and giving the president a sense of urgency, these attacks seem to have given the president a sense of resignation. He is effectively saying: an attack is inevitable, we’ll do our best to prevent it, but if we get hit again—even on the scale of 9/11—it’s really no big deal.

In fact, it would be a big deal, particularly to the people who would bear the burden of “absorbing” another attack—the victims and their families. Obama’s statement is unimaginably cavalier about the deaths of nearly 3,000 people, and disturbingly resigned to the prospect of thousands more perishing in our midst.

First, what President Obama said seems correct. The U.S. can absorb a conventional terrorist attack and continue to function (a WMD attack would be a different story, but fortunately those are much harder to pull off). It's not as if President Obama is suggesting an attack is a good thing or that we should encourage them. In a free society, it's impossible - impossible - to stop every last individuals or small groups of people from committing acts of terrorism. Pretending otherwise, as Theissen appears to, is not only naive but infantile.

Now, the other point is whether this means the administration is "complacent" and "resigned" to future terrorist strikes. If one defines counter-terrorism as consisting of a set of policies beyond torturing people enhanced interrogation, I think it's hard to argue that they are. There's been an expedited drone war in Pakistan, a surge of troops into Afghanistan, and an uptick in not-so-covert support to Yemen and Somalia. One would not embark on those policies if they took a blase attitude about the threat from al-Qaeda.

(AP Photo)

Afghanistan and the War at Home


Everyone's aflutter over the new Bob Woodward tome documenting rifts in the Obama administration's war cabinet over the war in Afghanistan. In the early write-ups it appears that key members of the administration had serious misgivings about the counter-insurgency strategy championed by the military and many outside experts. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Ben Connable explains what is necessary for the U.S. to stabilize Afghanistan, and reading it, you understand the misgivings of folks like Holbrooke and Eikenberry:

If the United States seeks stability in Afghanistan, its strategy will have to deal with these realities. There can be no shortcuts; although it is possible to quickly defeat insurgents, dealing with root causes, a multitude of combatants, and havens will take time. And it will be expensive: the costs of such an effort are incalculable, since it is impossible to predict how long the violence in any insurgency will drag on.

Nevertheless, a careful study of insurgencies over the last 50 years suggests that what is needed in Afghanistan now is the patient application of a traditional counterinsurgency campaign for years to come. If done well, a long-term campaign could lead to a stable Afghanistan that is so inhospitable to the major Afghan insurgent groups that they wither into irrelevance or are forced to the bargaining table. Enduring stability in Afghanistan and a consequent shift in popular support for the government could, on balance, negate the strength the Taliban continues to draw from its sanctuary in Pakistan. And although a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan will not ultimately solve the problem of terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan, neither do any of the other proposed policy options.

In other words, no one knows how to dry up terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan. But even with a stable Afghanistan, secure safe havens in Pakistan will allow al-Qaeda to strike at American targets, even if fitfully and largely unsuccessfully. It seems to me that if we can't safeguard the U.S. from terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan no matter what we do in Afghanistan, than we should not pursue a strategy with the highest costs associated with it.

September 20, 2010

U.S. Leadership Looking Up in Asia

Via Gallup, it seems the Obama administration has made some modest strides in bolstering America's image in Asia:

Approval of U.S. leadership in Asia has seen its share of ups and downs over the last two years as the Bush era ended and the Obama era began. So far in 2010, approval ratings remain higher than they were in 2008 in 10 out of the 18 countries surveyed. Approval increased most in Australia and New Zealand and declined most in Vietnam, Indonesia, and India, where residents are now significantly more uncertain...

In fact, in many other countries in the region where approval is lowest -- Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Indonesia -- about half or more of respondents do not have an opinion about U.S. leadership, but those who do are more likely to approve than disapprove. The number of respondents who express uncertainty about U.S. leadership has increased significantly since 2008 in India, Vietnam, Nepal, and Indonesia.

And where is approval for U.S. leadership the lowest? Pakistan and Afghanistan.

September 15, 2010

A Musharraf Come Back?

The Lede reports that Pakistan's former president is contemplating a comeback. Probably just what the embattled country does not need at the moment.

September 14, 2010

U.S. Views on Afghan Withdrawal

Via Rasmussen:

Twenty-seven percent (27%) of voters believe all U.S. troops should be brought home from Afghanistan immediately, a finding that has remained largely unchanged since last November.

A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 16% more think a firm timetable should be established for bringing the troops home within a year. Forty-six percent (46%) oppose a firm timetable of any kind.

Defending the Afghanistan Study Group

Justin Logan thinks the critics of the Afghanistan Study Group are missing the point:

I am forced to conclude that neither Foust nor Exum understands what strategy is. It is not, pace Foust, induced by piling up mounds of granular operational and tactical detail and then seeing what one can shape out of the pile. Instead, those engaged in strategy must attempt to discern and state clearly the interests at stake (in this case those the United States has in Afghanistan or the region more broadly) and then to attempt to connect the complex chain of ends, ways, and means in order to explain how best to pursue those interests. I thought the report was fairly clear on the task force’s views on America’s interests and in proposing to bring America’s exertions better into line with its interests. Thoughtful critiques would engage either on the grounds that the authors have misconstrued (a) America’s interests, (b) how best to pursue them, or (c) both.

Update: Foust responds to his critics here.

September 13, 2010

Boots on the (Afghan) Ground


Via Andrew Sullivan, Joshua Foust joins the chorus crying foul on the Afghanistan Study Group report. I haven't finished reading the report yet, but many of the concerns Foust raises strike me as valid, so his take-down is well worth a look. This bit, though, I'm not so sure about:

[T]he best way to ensure Afghanistan does not fall into chaos is to leave the country as stable as possible. Reducing it to a Special Forces and Drone targetting range, which the group recommends, is just as unsustainable in the long run as the current counterinsurgency effort. Maintaining an active drone program to preemptively bomb any new al Qaeda camps that might spring up will be difficult if not impossible without a massive human intelligence network to support it—and that HUMINT network cannot be maintained without a significant U.S. military and intelligence presence in the country (which is difficult to do if 80% of the force is withdrawn over the next 18 months, as ASG suggest).

By all accounts, the U.S. is running a fairly aggressive drone campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban inside Pakistan without anywhere near the same number of troops on the ground that we currently have in Afghanistan. If we don't need 100,000-plus coalition troops inside Pakistan to wage an effective drone war against al-Qaeda there, why do we need them in Afghanistan?

(AP Photo)

Bad Options in Afghanistan

Max Boot is alarmed at the feckless second guessing of the Afghanistan Study Group's recommendations for an alternative strategy for the war. Boot writes:

The Taliban are a determined, well-armed insurgency group and they see no reason to reach a power-sharing deal, no matter what “regional and global stakeholders” say. Of course, there is not a hint of how key stakeholders such as Iran and Pakistan, which support the Taliban, can be convinced to cut them off. Instead, there is a blind hope that somehow “economic development” will ameliorate Afghanistan’s woes in the face of abundant evidence that the economic aid provided since 2001 has instead made the situation worse in many respects, by fueling out-of-control corruption.

This of course raises all kinds of red flags about any strategy for Afghanistan. I mean, do COIN advocates have a plausible strategy for getting Pakistan to cut the Taliban loose?

If At First You Don't Succeed

A report in the Indian paper Rediff details how Pakistan asked the Bush administration not to overthrow the Taliban following 9/11 and tried to avoid capturing bin Laden themselves so as to "avoid the fallout" -

The ISI's proclivity with Taliban and Al Qaeda is well known. The recently released wikileaks and now these documents extracted from National Security Archive Electronic Briefing speak volumes about the deep running alliance.

Ironically, nine years down the line, Pakistan is again pushing hard to reconcile with the Taliban, and this time, the US and NATO are supporting it.

September 10, 2010

Afghans Less Confident About Election

Gallup's latest isn't surprising:

Afghans' increasing lack of confidence in the honesty of their elections, along with major security concerns, could keep some from voting next week in the country's second parliamentary elections. Gallup surveys show the percentage of Afghans who do not trust their electoral process spiraled from 49% just after last year's fraud-marred presidential election to 67% earlier this year.

September 9, 2010

Goal Shifting in Afghanistan

Paul Pillar puts it succinctly:

The counterinsurgency, with its goals of defeating the Afghan Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan, has come to be treated as if it were an end in itself. It is not an end in itself. It is the result of a nine-year-long mission creep that has accompanied a deterioration of security conditions in Afghanistan, which in turn has accompanied the nine-year military presence there. It represents a major displacement from the original reason for a military intervention in 2001, which was to roust Al Qaeda from its Afghan home and to oust from power its then-allies in the Taliban.

September 7, 2010

Afghan Literacy

Not so much:

The U.S. military is mounting a massive effort to help teach Afghan soldiers and police to read after concluding that literacy is “the essential enabler” to the local security forces’ success.

“How do you expect a soldier to account for their weapon if they can’t even read the serial number?” said Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, head of the NATO-led effort to train the Afghan national security forces.

“It’s really challenging for some people to fully appreciate just how illiterate most of this population is,” Caldwell said. “It doesn’t mean they don’t have street sense and they’re not smart in many ways. But they don’t have the education … to look at a series of numbers and be able to read it.”

The literacy rate for incoming Afghan army and police recruits is about 14 percent to 18 percent, Caldwell said.

Is anyone teaching the Taliban how to read?

Playing into Bin Laden's Hands

Upset that President Obama wants to curtail America's costly and open-ended commitment to nation building and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, Marc Thiessen invokes a letter from bin Laden outlining his strategy for bleeding America in a long insurgency, to argue in favor of.... staying and bleeding:

The talk of withdrawal was damaging, but this pivot to domestic priorities was the most dangerous part of Obama's speech -- because what our enemies heard was that their strategy to defeat America is working. In a letter to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, uncovered by coalition forces in 2002, Osama bin Laden explained that the way to get the United States to quit Afghanistan is to convince Americans "that their government [will] bring them more losses, in finances and casualties." As this message takes hold, bin Laden told Mullah Omar, it will create "pressure from the American people on the American government to stop their campaign against Afghanistan." Bin Laden calls this his "bleed until bankruptcy" strategy, and he has expressed confidence it will work, because the Taliban and al-Qaeda possess something that President Obama clearly lacks -- strategic patience. As bin Laden explained a 2004 video, time is on his side: "We . . . bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat. . . . So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing, and nothing is too great for Allah." What bin Laden heard last Tuesday was that the "bleed until bankruptcy" approach is having its intended effect. America, bin Laden heard, has tired of the costs of war and is beginning to pull back -- first from Iraq and eventually from Afghanistan -- so we can focus on rescuing our teetering economy.

I am assuming Thiessen is citing this account of al-Qaeda files discovered in Afghanistan shortly after the Taliban fell. From that, it's clear that the U.S. played rather directly into bin Laden's hand (particularly in Iraq) - getting itself stuck in large, conventional ground wars with insurgent forces that dragged on for years. We played to their strengths, and not ours. And, as bin Laden predicted, it has been costly. Even if you don't accept the $3 trillion-plus figure floated by Joseph Stiglitz over the weekend, the costs in blood and treasure have been steep.

Look, I'm no Sun Tzu, but usually when your enemies express a desire for you to do X, shouldn't you avoid doing X?

September 6, 2010

The Long War

In the course of arguing why Osama bin Laden remains relevant, Peter Bergen draws attention to some conflicting currents in America's counter-terrorism strategy:

Al Qaeda and like-minded groups have attracted dozens of U.S. citizens and residents as foot soldiers. According to a count by Andrew Lebovich of the New America Foundation, in 2009 at least 43 American citizens or residents aligned with Sunni militant groups or their ideology were charged with terrorism crimes in the United States or elsewhere, the highest number in any year since 9/11. So far in 2010, at least 18 have been similarly charged or convicted.

And then:

While bin Laden himself may have vanished like a wraith, intelligence about other militant leaders in the Pakistani tribal areas has markedly improved in the past couple of years. In 2007 there were just three drone strikes reported there; in 2008 there were 34; the Obama administration has already authorized more than 100. Those drones have killed at least a dozen mid and upper-level leaders of Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

While I think we need to be careful about drawing too tight a casual link between the uptick in U.S. military activity in Pakistan and the increase in American citizens signing up for jihadism, this phenomena should give us pause. The U.S. has been waging large scale military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq for approaching a decade. If the pattern continues into the next, will more and more Americans become seduced by bin Laden's siren song?

August 31, 2010

Gas Attacks in Afghanistan

I don't believe that the fate of Afghan women should be used as a moral cudgel against those who object to the current U.S. strategy. That said, this is disgusting:

Blood tests have confirmed that a series of mysterious mass sickenings at girls’ schools across the country over the last two years were caused by a powerful poison gas, Afghan officials said Tuesday.

The sickenings had long been officially dismissed as episodes of mass hysteria, caused by the frequency of arson and acid attacks directed at schoolgirls by the Taliban and other extremists who oppose their education.

How the gas was delivered — and even whether the poisonings were deliberate — remained a mystery, the officials emphasized. There have been no fatalities, and no one has ever claimed responsibility for the episodes. But the cases have been reported only in girls’ schools, or in mixed schools during hours set aside only for girls.

August 20, 2010

British Support for Afghan War Falls


According to Angus Reid only 33 percent of UK citizens support the war in Afghanistan while 57 percent oppose it. Support for the mission has fallen since June, when 38 percent of British respondents said they supported the effort. Among the other findings:

A majority of Britons (54 percent) believe the country made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan. Less than half of respondents (46 percent) claim to have a clear idea of what the war in Afghanistan is about.

When asked about what they think will be the most likely outcome of the conflict in Afghanistan, only seven per cent of Britons predict a clear victory by U.S. and allied forces over the Taliban, and 31 percent foresee a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and allied strength that gives the Taliban a small role in the Afghan government.

In addition, 19 percent of respondents expect a negotiated settlement from a position of U.S. and allied weakness that gives the Taliban a significant role in the Afghan government, and 10 per cent believe the Taliban will defeat the U.S. and allied forces.

Angus Reid released a similar survey of U.S. public opinion on the war yesterday.

(AP Photo)

August 19, 2010

Surge Lessons for Afghanistan

If the purpose of the surge was to create a space for political reconciliation and a reduction in sectarian violence, which would in turn lead to the creation of a strong and stable government in Iraq that was capable of balancing against Iran and otherwise serve as a bulwark in the region, and if neither of these things have happened, then how can we call the surge a success? And if the surge is not the great success that the advocates of the surge would have you believe, then how much confidence should we have in their advice as it pertains to Afghanistan? - Christopher Preble

General Petraeus conceded on Meet the Press that the success of the Iraq surge has yet to be determined, which doesn't exactly augur well for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. And again, it goes back to the fundamental question: what does the U.S. buy if the surge "succeeds" in Afghanistan? Are we demonstrably safer from international terrorism? Will the gains be worth the costs?

U.S. Support for Afghan War Falls


According to a new poll from Angus Reid, 47 percent of Americans support the mission in Afghanistan, down from 54 percent in February of this year. More than half (52 percent) of respondents said they had no "clear idea" what the war was about and 65 percent are not confident that President Obama will "finish the job."

(AP Photo)

August 13, 2010

The Football

Last summer, I met with a special ops officer who compared America’s relationship with Pakistan to the recurring “Peanuts” gag in which Lucy offers to hold a football so that Charlie Brown can kick it. “Every time Charlie Brown thinks she’s going to hold the football still, and each and every time, she pulls it away just as he’s about to kick,” he said. Shaking his head incredulously, he added: “And then he just lines up to try and kick it again and again.” That some observers, including myself, had begun to believe that Pakistan had reformed its behavior in early 2010 now seems preposterous. - Nicholas Schmidle
The U.S. military has stopped lobbying Pakistan to help root out one of the biggest militant threats to coalition forces in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say, acknowledging that the failure to win better help from Islamabad threatens to damage a linchpin of their Afghan strategy.

Until recently, the U.S. had been pressing Islamabad to launch major operations against the Haqqani network, a militant group connected to al Qaeda that controls a key border region where U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe Osama bin Laden has hidden.

The group has been implicated in the Dec. 30 bombing of a CIA base in Khost, a January assault on Afghan government ministries and a luxury hotel in Kabul, and in the killing of five United Nations staffers in last year's raid on a U.N. guesthouse.

But military officials have decided that pressing Pakistan for help against the group—as much as it is needed—is counterproductive. - Barnes, Gorman & Wright

On the bright side, when you stop trying to kick the football, you won't look the fool.

August 12, 2010

Canadians Oppose Afghan Mission


A new poll from Angus Reid shows that a majority of Canadians (53 percent) oppose the mission in Afghanistan. That's down from 47 percent from a similar survey taken in February of this year.

Among the poll's other findings: 43 percent of Canadians think it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan in the first place, while 44 percent don't have a clear idea of what the war is about. Canadians don't have much faith in President Obama to "finish the job" (only 32 percent think he will).

(AP Photo)

August 10, 2010

Afghans, Pakistanis See Terror Fight Lagging

According to Gallup, neither Afghans or Pakistanis have a high view of their country's efforts against terrorism:


Pakistanis aren't much happier: 44 percent of adults say Afghanistan isn't doing enough to control cross-border terrorism while 41 percent say their own country's efforts fall short.

August 3, 2010

American Views of Afghan Draw Down

A fresh poll from Zogby International tackles President Obama's Afghan policy:

A plurality of likely voters (45%) say President Obama should carry through on his plan to begin troop withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2011, with 35% saying he should not.

In the same Zogby Interactive poll of 2,389 likely voters conducted from July 27-29, 2010, 32% say the military operations to defeat the Taliban and strengthen the Afghan government are going poorly. A combined 20% give positive grades (2% excellent, 17% good) to these military operations, and 44% rate them as fair.

They also asked voters about military spending: 36 percent felt the U.S. spent too much, 30 percent said too little, and 24 percent said just right.

American Views of Afghan War

New polling from Gallup indicates that a majority of Americans (62 percent) think the war is going very or moderately badly. Americans are also questioning whether we should have invaded in the first place:


I think it's less a question of whether we should have attacked al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after 9/11 (obviously we should have) but whether after we had successfully driven them out, it was a good idea to stick around and try to defend the institutions of a new Afghan state.

July 30, 2010

Why We're Failing in Afghanistan


Max Boot sums it up in a nutshell:

Devine’s argument appears, on the surface, to be more hardheaded, but actually, it is almost as unrealistic — and not incompatible with Kristof’s fantasy, as I bet Kristof imagines that his “schools for all” option could be supplemented by Special Operations and CIA actions to keep the Taliban in check. Such operations worked well in the past, as Devine notes, when the CIA was helping the mujahideen resist Soviet rule and then again in 2001, when it was helping the Northern Alliance overthrow the Taliban. But there is a fundamental disparity between those situations and the one we face today. It’s much easier for a covert force to overthrow a government, especially an unpopular government like the Soviet-backed regime or the Taliban. Altogether more difficult is imposing the rule of law, extending the authority of a new government, and stamping out a tenacious insurgency. Those are the challenges that we face today in Afghanistan, and they can’t be accomplished by a handful of special operators. They require large troop numbers, and because the Afghan National Army still lacks adequate capacity to police the country, its efforts must be supplemented for the short-term by the U.S. and its NATO allies. [Emphasis mine]
Did you read anything in there about preventing al-Qaeda attacks on the American homeland? Neither did I. The Boot recipe for waging a huge counter-insurgency is only marginally related to our ability to stop al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base from which to train and plot attacks against America (and even preventing al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan would not help us against al-Qaeda attacks originating in any number of countries). Devine's argument (unfortunately behind the WSJ's firewall) calls for a mission that is targeted at the proper ends - keeping al Qaeda off balance. That does not require any of the steps Boot prescribes. Waging a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is not only far too ambitious, it's also basically irrelevant to our security needs.

(AP Photo)

The View from Pakistan

Pew Research has released a wide-ranging survey of attitudes in Pakistan. Some highlights:

* One in five have a positive view of President Zardari

* 51 percent are concerned about an extremist takeover of the country

* Pakistanis feel less threatened by al Qaeda (38 percent vs. 61 percent in 2009) and the Taliban (54 percent in 2010 vs. 73 percent in 2009)

* Pakistanis have negative views of both organizations - 65 percent hold an unfavorable view of the Taliban and 53 percent hold a dim view of al Qaeda.

* It's a different story with Lashkar e-Taiba, with just 35 percent of Pakistanis expressing a negative view of the group. "One-in-four Pakistanis express a positive assessment, while 40% offer no opinion," Pew noted.

* Pakistani views of the U.S. are poor. Notes Pew: "Along with Turks and Egyptians, Pakistanis give the U.S. its lowest ratings among the 22 nations included in the spring 2010 Pew Global Attitudes survey -- in all three countries, only 17% have a favorable view of the U.S. Roughly six-in-ten (59%) Pakistanis describe the U.S. as an enemy, while just 11% say it is a partner. And President Barack Obama is unpopular -- only 8% of Pakistanis express confidence that he will do the right thing in world affairs, his lowest rating among the 22 nations."

July 28, 2010

David Cameron on Pakistan

The British Prime Minister continues his making friends and influencing people tour:

David Cameron today sparked a furious diplomatic row with Islamabad after accusing elements of the Pakistani state of promoting the export of terrorism.

In the strongest British criticism of Pakistan so far, the prime minister warned Islamabad it could no longer "look both ways" by tolerating terrorism while demanding respect as a democracy.

But in an angry response, Pakistan's high commissioner to Britain accused Cameron of damaging the prospects for regional peace, and criticised him for believing allegations in the Wikileaks documents published in the Guardian earlier this week.

I doubt publicly brow-beating Pakistan over their not-so-covert support for militant networks is going to work, but then again, will anything?

July 27, 2010

WikiLeaks and the COIN Consensus

Andrew Exum, writing in the pages of today's New York Times, shrugs at the WikiLeaks brouhaha:

ANYONE who has spent the past two days reading through the 92,000 military field reports and other documents made public by the whistle-blower site WikiLeaks may be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about. I’m a researcher who studies Afghanistan and have no regular access to classified information, yet I have seen nothing in the documents that has either surprised me or told me anything of significance. I suspect that’s the case even for someone who reads only a third of the articles on Afghanistan in his local newspaper. [Emphasis added - KS]

But is this really the case? "Move along, nothing to see here" certainly appears to be the consensus from the media and the policy community, but this is an incredibly small (albeit vocal) sample size of Americans. Broader survey data paints a slightly different picture of the American public's war understanding - one which is more confused, critical and mixed about the U.S. mission and prospects in Afghanistan.

I agree with Exum that much of the information revealed in the leaks was common knowledge to the commentariat and the think tankers, but I wonder if the same can be said so unequivocally of the greater public. Would support for the war radically change if, for instance, the American public better understood the Pakistani intelligence community's relationship with a co-conspirator in the 9/11 attacks? What about that aid package Washington just handed to Islamabad?

Exum would have us all believe that the WikiLeaks disclosures are both ho-hum and irresponsible journalism. Both may be true, but if there's been any kind of journalistic failure here it began not with WikiLeaks, but with the pundits and policy makers who have failed to enhance public understanding of the war. There was no need for such debate and education however, because a bipartisan consensus had already congealed around a counterinsurgency strategy.

Exum accuses WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange of being an activist with an agenda, which is no doubt true. But is Assange really the only one with an agenda here, or does his agenda simply not sit well will the COINdinistas?

July 26, 2010

WikiLeaks Observations

First the interesting, from Londonstani:

I think there is much more to this whole episode than whether or not you knew civilians were being killed in Afghanistan and former ISI officials were giving advice to insurgents in Afghanistan. This is about public opinion. Measuring what the public thinks and predicting how it might react to events is an imprecise science (much like the related fields of economics and sociology). But it's still very real. You might not know how it works but you can feel its effects when governments start clamping down on banks, launch military campaigns or pull troops out and come home.

And when it comes to public opinion, lots of vagaries start making a huge difference - like how you found out. When George Galloway suggested that British MPs were greedy, people rolled their eyes, nodded or smiled. The general thought was, "yeah. But they are politicians, what do you expect?" However, once the British MPs expenses scandal hit the headlines with details of taxpayers coughing up for duckhouses and flatscreen televisions, the result was a national political crisis.

We'll follow subsequent polling on U.S. sentiment toward Afghanistan, but I wonder: is this, as Andrew Bast wrote today, a "Pentagon Papers" moment? I lean towards "no," but we'll see.

Now the debatable, from Stephen Hayes:

Taken together, and added to what we know about support for al Qaeda and its affiliates from the regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, these reports should deal a fatal blow to the stubborn claims that the jihadists at war with us operate without the backing of states. Unlikely.

So, which state is supporting the Pakistani Taliban's efforts to overthrow the Zardari government?

That aside, I think this is a bit of red herring. There are terrorists organization that are state proxies (Hezbollah) and there are terrorist organizations that take aid and comfort where they can get it but don't exist for the purpose of perpetuating the policies of a single state (al Qaeda). This strikes me as an important distinction and not one we should casually discard.

WikiLeaks and 'Unrefined' Intel

With the release of what purports to be some several tens of thousands of intelligence documents from Afghanistan, the commentariat is atwitter with the possibility that people normally excluded from the intelligence process have been granted an all access pass to the inner sanctum. While I have not yet been able to read the reports due to a clogged WikiLeaks portal, most of these rules are precisely what was taught to me and what I taught to intelligence professionals throughout the military.

1) While 90K seems like a lot, it is only about 50 reports a day over a five year period. Many individual intel teams will generate that many reports on a busy day, and it only represents a very small fraction of the total intake of intel across Afghanistan. With so few reports it is possible that these reports were cherry picked, but even without deliberate selection bias, this is hardly an accurate picture.

2) Context is everything. There are literally dozens of things that a good analyst must take into consideration before giving credence to any report. Is the source honest? Is the source well informed? Are there other confirming reports? Does this really reveal anything? Human intelligence is notoriously easy to fake, and the more well known a person is the more likely you are to get reports on that person, usually false. Similarly, if people know that you suspect someone, they are often very willing to fabricate information to confirm your suspicion. Many times sources are just looking to get paid. For this reason single reports are basically useless. In fact, any source has to be evaluated over time, and against other intelligence. Without a lot of experience and access to broad spectrum information it is very difficult to evaluate intelligence.

3) Intelligence is perishable. Things change. If you tried to get a picture of someone based upon their Facebook page from the past five years, and assumed that it was all current across the entire time, you would likely be surprised by the number of twenty-somethings who were really into Britney Spears. Drawing conclusions in 2010 from links made across five years is hazardous at best.

4) People have agendas. Sources, WikiLeaks, the analysts (including me) all have things they are trying to accomplish. You do not and will not know their motives. But every level has filtered the information how they want. In the case of these leaked documents, the information has been filtered at least four times: the original source, the reporting officer, the leaking person and WikiLeaks. In at least two of those cases we know that part of the agenda is in opposition to the U.S. war effort, but we still have no idea how that filtered the information. More obviously, most readers will not read the actual documents, and will rely on people who claim to have read the documents and are writing for other media.

5) Just because something is secret does not mean it is important. The U.S. could probably declassify 90 percent of the things that are currently classified as 'secret' without hurting the mission one bit, because that information is either not true or unimportant. People keep secrets for all kinds of stupid and not stupid reasons, but that does not intrinsically mean it has any value.

If you want more information on the U.S. intelligence procedures as followed by the U.S. Military, refer to FM 2-0 (pdf).

David Benson has spent the last ten years in the intelligence community both in the U.S. and abroad, including seven years with the Army, and three years as a civilian contractor with a DoD Intelligence agency.

Pakistan, Iran and the Limits of American Power


As Laura Rozen notes, there doesn't appear to be much in the WikiLeaks document dump that should surprise people who have been keeping up with the news on the Afghan war. Nevertheless, it serves to further confirm what the London School of Economics Study alleged earlier this year: that Pakistan is complicit in the Taliban insurgency and is actively undermining American goals in Afghanistan even while it receives billions of dollars in taxpayer money.

The revelations about Pakistan are interesting insofar as they highlight the contrast with U.S. policy on Iran. Both countries are supporting terrorist groups that have killed Americans. I would argue that Pakistan's support for terrorism is significantly more serious than Iran's because: 1. Pakistan's terror affiliates have the proven capacity and intention of striking the American homeland and killing American civilians; 2. Pakistan is facilitating the protection of the lead architects of 9/11. Nevertheless, Iran is no slouch when it comes to funding or arming terror groups.

Yet as the U.S. showers Pakistan with money and military hardware, it seeks to sanction and isolate Iran. And here's the rub: neither approach has been very effective. This is bad news for those who seek to engage Iran: the engagement with Pakistan has not convinced important constituencies in that country to cut ties with the Taliban or surrender their vision of Afghanistan as "strategic depth." It's also bad news for those who seek to get tough with Pakistan: getting tough with Iran hasn't changed Iranian behavior either.

I think a case can be made that engagement has moved Pakistan further toward U.S. goals than isolation, sanctions and belligerent threats have worked to move Iran toward U.S. goals. But the lack of progress on both fronts should serve as a reminder that there is a great distance to travel between being powerful and getting your way.

(AP Photo)

July 25, 2010

Where Is al-Qaeda Safest?

Describing Pakistan's lawless tribal belt near Afghanistan as the "global headquarters" of Al-Qaeda, top American military commander Mike Mullen has said the US believed that the terror network's chief Osama bin Laden and his deputy Aiman al-Zawahiri are in this country.

The presence of these terrorist leaders in the region is a reason why "a principal part of the overall Af-Pak strategy is focussed on elimination of safe havens" for them, Mullen told reporters in Islamabad last night.

His comments came days after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ruffled feathers in Islamabad by making a similar statement. - Hindustan Times

One recurring fear that advocates of a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan invoke to press their case is that if the U.S. changes its strategy, al Qaeda will pull up stakes from Pakistan and move into Afghanistan to reclaim their former safe haven. This doesn't make much sense on the face of it: Pakistan seems like a much safer place for al Qaeda's leadership to reside than Afghanistan. Could you imagine the top U.S. diplomat and military leader waxing so ineffectual if bin Laden was in a country we could attack with impunity?

July 23, 2010

Karzai's Job Approval Sinking


According to Gallup, Hamid Karzai's approvals are slipping:

At 44%, more Afghans approve of Karzai's individual leadership than they do the nation's leadership in general. However, his approval is down from 2009, and a majority (52%) disapproves for the first time. Karzai enjoyed majority approval throughout 2009, despite the election controversy last fall. His fellow citizens are more divided now, as they were in late 2008.

Things aren't looking so good for the U.S. either:

Afghans' approval of their country's leadership fell to 33% in April -- the lowest measured since 2008. More Afghans now approve of the job performance of U.S. leadership (43%) than they do their own.

July 19, 2010

Afghan Poll: Mixed Picture


A new poll from the International Council on Security and Development found some mixed results from the Afghan people:

ICOS field research reveals a relationship gap between NATO-ISAF and the Afghan communities they are intended to protect. For instance 75% of interviewees believe that foreigners disrespect their religion and traditions; 74% believe that working with foreign forces is wrong; and 68% believe that NATO-ISAF does not protect them. 55% of interviewees believe that the international community is in Afghanistan for its own benefit, to destroy or occupy the country, or to destroy Islam.

These results are troubling, and demonstrate the mistrust and resentment felt towards the international presence in Afghanistan. Of those interviewed, 70% believe that recent military actions in their area were bad for the Afghan people, whilst 59% opposed further operations in Kandahar. According to interviewees, the Afghan government is also responsible by failing to provide good governance. 70% of respondents believe that local officials make money from drug trafficking, and an astonishing 64% state that government administrators in their area were connected to the Taliban insurgency.

On the flip side, the survey also found that 55 percent of those interviewed thought that NATO was winning in Afghanistan. Also:

Despite the 2009 presidential elections, which were marked by fraud, 40% of Afghan respondents stated that democracy was important to them, and 72% would prefer their children to grow up under an elected government rather than the Taliban.

There is some progress in women‟s rights, with 57% of interviewees supporting girls education. The field research also reveals that respondents have strong social and economic aspirations – the most popular uses for $5000USD would be establishing or expanding a business, and marriage.

The interviews also indicate that negativity is not directed solely against the international coalition, but also to other outside parties. 62% of the interviewees believe Pakistan played a negative role in their country and 56% felt negative about Iran‟s influence in Afghanistan.

(AP Photo)

July 15, 2010

U.S. Views on Afghanistan

From a recent CBS News poll:

Today, the poll finds, 62 percent of Americans say the war is going badly, up from 49 percent in May. Just 31 percent say the war in Afghanistan is going well.

Nine years into the war, 33 percent of Americans say they do not want large numbers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for another year. Twenty-three percent of Americans say they are willing to have troops stay there for one or two more years.

Just 35 percent are willing to have troops stay longer than two years.

Most Americans -- 54 percent -- think the U.S. should set a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Forty-one percent disagree.

July 13, 2010

U.S. Views on Afghan War

Gallup offers some new polling data on U.S. views of Afghanistan and of General Petraeus:


Frank Newport offers his analysis:

Gallup finds both good news and bad news for Gen. Petraeus in this July 8-11 poll. He takes his new job as commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan with a remarkably positive image among Americans who know who he is. At the same time, Petraeus now faces the additional challenge of commanding a mission that the majority of Americans say is going badly. Americans' views of the situation in Iraq improved during and after Petraeus' tenure as commander in that country. The degree to which Petraeus will be able to shift Americans' perceptions of the war in Afghanistan in similar fashion will have important consequences in many arenas, including the politics of the war in the U.S.

I think this last line is the key to understanding the surge, which is why I don't believe we can say definitively yet whether it has worked or not. The key metric is less what it does in Afghanistan, but the impression it leaves in Washington.

July 2, 2010

A Turning Point?

This week has brought two interesting revelations from the GOP in terms of foreign policy. The first was Representative Bachmann's claim that she didn't want to "bind the United States into a global economy." (Perhaps she's a secret devotee of Juche?)

The second, and more consequential, is this riff from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele on the war in Afghanistan:

At a Republican Party fundraiser in Connecticut on Thursday, Steele declared that the war in Afghanistan "was a war of Obama's choosing" that America had not "actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in," in a response to an attendee's question about the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- which Steele called "very comical."

"The McChrystal incident, to me, was very comical. And I think it's a reflection of the frustration that a lot of our military leaders have with this Administration and their prosecution of the war in Afghanistan," said Steele. "Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama's choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."

I highly doubt this presages a shift in the Republican attitude toward the war. But nevertheless, there is no intrinsically conservative/limited government argument for engaging in a multi-billion dollar social engineering scheme in the Hindu Kush. If the general public turns further south on the effort, will this line of argument gain greater traction among Republicans?.

July 1, 2010

U.S. Puts Number on Al Qaeda

The New York Times reports:

Michael E. Leiter, one of the country’s top counterterrorism officials, said Wednesday that American intelligence officials now estimated that there were somewhat “more than 300” Qaeda leaders and fighters hiding in Pakistan’s tribal areas, a rare public assessment of the strength of the terrorist group that is the central target of President Obama’s war strategy.

Taken together with the recent estimate by the C.I.A. director, Leon E. Panetta, that there are about 50 to 100 Qaeda operatives now in Afghanistan, American intelligence agencies believe that there are most likely fewer than 500 members of the group in a region where the United States has poured nearly 100,000 troops.

And it's not like these 100,000 troops are dedicated to finding and rooting out the 500 odd al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Instead, they're hunting down mid-level Pashtun Taliban commanders and attempting to extend the writ of the government in Kabul.